Yahoo Shows Off Social, Search Enhancements


SUNNYVALE, Calif. — Even after striking its multiyear, multibillion-dollar deal to outsource its search engine to Microsoft, Yahoo still plans to remain a player in search.

During a media briefing here at the company’s headquarters today, Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) executives took pains to clarify the implications of its high-profile search deal with Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), noting in particular that it plans to continue to innovate in search.

Execs also gave a bullish outlook for efforts to make its some of its key properties better linked to popular social networking services and simpler to use — ensuring that the pioneering Web portal stakes out turf in the white-hot social networking space.

But it’s Yahoo’s future in search that has long been an open question for many industry watchers.

Speaking here today, Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Yahoo’s search strategy and labs, aimed to put many of those concerns to rest, mapping out a scenario by which Yahoo will still have plenty of room in which to enhance search — even though the deal with Microsoft, which is pending regulatory approval, calls for it to hand over much of search’s behind-the-scenes operations.

“We believe the battle has moved on from the back end, and our colleagues at Microsoft will be there,” Raghavan said. “We’re free to innovate on top of the layer. Our front end experience will advance differently than Bing. The back end is a megawatt war and that’s what we’re getting out of. We want to compete on the front end, and what the user is trying to get done.”

Better search

Larry Cornett, Yahoo’s vice-president of search, said search is “critical to people lives” and that Yahoo has been working on improvements to give users more relevant results.

“We’ve invested in a lot of fantastic search technology, but people aren’t aware of all of it,” he said.

He said Yahoo wants to lead a charge toward a “Web of Objects,” or structured data, versus the Web of pages on which search has traditionally focused.

A new left-hand column on Yahoo will include recommendation results for search queries. In a demo, Cornett showed how a query for “how to make sushi” would show results from sites like Wikipedia and eHow specifically geared to the question of answering “how to” do a task.

“And unlike any other search engine, you can watch the video in the search page,” he said, demoing just such a result with one click. “That’s what happy users want — bring the information to them.”

Cornett also said that as Yahoo gets further along in its plans to integrate social networks like Facebook and other sites into its home page, it will make Yahoo a better starting point for finding people.

He acknowledged that today most people think of “Googling” a person when they want to find someone on the Web, “but when we launch this, you’re going to think of Yahoo when you want to search for people,” he said.

Cornett added the left-hand column would also highlight new applications like Yahoo’s Search Pad, which provides an easy way for users to track and record a search session for later retrieval. It would also show off the “safe search” security provided by McAfee, with which Yahoo has partnered.

Yahoo also showed off additional efforts toward enhancing search, previewing several new features of its Mail and Messenger services that tap into the company’s search expertise.

Mail, IM get more social, new features

The company isn’t just focused on tweaking search’s user interface. Connections to social networks and other Web services are also critical for keeping visitors using Yahoo’s Web properties even when they want to get information or connect to others on Facebook, Gmail and other services.

As a result, the company plans enhancements to Yahoo Mail that will be rolled out on a global basis over the next few months, with some users potentially seeing them as early as this week.

One demonstration showed how Yahoo plans to make important mail more readily accessible.

In user tests, Yahoo said most users go through a time-consuming hunt-and-peck process to find the most important e-mails in their inbox. According to the company, Yahoo’s new Mail will analyze the inbox to help surface what it thinks are the most important e-mails in a separate column, based on a variety of factors — including frequency of communications and social network connection.

Yahoo Messenger, its instant message client, is also being upgraded. For instance, a demo by Yahoo Messenger senior director David Merriwether showed the software offering high-quality video chat with features like picture-in-picture.

John Kremer, vice president of Yahoo Mail
John Kremer
Photo: David Needle

The application’s forthcoming version 10 will also include social-friendly upgrades, like integrated status updates — enabling users to scroll through their contacts list and quickly see status messages, Twitter updates, photos and another public-facing messages.

Yahoo Mail is also getting other upgrades, with Yahoo increasing the size of photo attachments to 25 megabytes and simplifying the process of sending and editing photos in attachments.

With the new version, you can attach a folder of photos with one click and view and edit them before sending. For example, a folder with five photos would show thumbnails of all five images, and you can select any to delete or rotate before sending.

“Yahoo Mail isn’t only e-mail, it’s IMs and SMS and now social communications,” said John Kremer, vice president of Yahoo Mail. “It’s a place to see what matters to you in a single interface.”

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