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Saturday, February 21, 2004

The New! Yahoo! Search! -- It Seems Like a Natural

Yahoo's prolonged planning process has finally culminated in the release of their new Yahoo Search. Truth be told, this isn't the most earth-shattering announcement in the history of the Internet business, or even of Yahoo. But it signals an important new phase in the contemporary (dare I use this phrase once more) Search Wars.

There will be many (too many) posts on this development at various forums around the web. Here's our early take, anyway.

The first key is that Yahoo is renewing a commitment to an idea they themselves popularized: helping users find what's out there on the web. It always seemed a strange thing that Yahoo, a company that was once synonymous with search, kept auditioning new "search vendors" to provide its index results. Actually, Yahoo's failure to recognize the thirst for great-quality search in their own customer base -- their gradual loss of focus -- is why some folks think that Google kicked their tail in the first place. Given that the announcement was made on Thursday by Jeff Weiner, Senior Vice President, "Search and Marketplace," one wonders if the all-things-to-all-people fuzziness problem is likely to persist at Yahoo.

The product itself? Most early reviews are good, but it's very early days yet. Yahoo's allowing webmasters to submit to a free URL submit page if they want, and it's got its own crawler. They'll also mix in liberal doses of Inktomi paid inclusion results. The mix of paid to nonpaid results is far from clear, but it looks from here like Yahoo Search is setting themselves up for the same wild ride Inktomi itself went on. Anytime you've got an openly-accessible Add URL page, either you don't really use it, or you leave yourself pretty wide open to spam. It's far too early, then, to tell much about search quality, and thus, the fallout in terms of user response.

Legitimate marketers who want to appear in Yahoo results will no doubt begin to, as the saying goes, discuss amongst themselves and get up to speed on the latest tactics as quickly as possible.

The great unanswered question will revolve around the mix of paid to unpaid results, and secondary questions may be asked about the potential for some paid advertisers to be given a de facto boost in rank above other, small-fry paid-inclusion advertisers depending on which PFI program they've used to get into the index.

Although such shenanigans and classes of inclusion will no doubt seem to many to pervert the whole concept of "search," it's not all that different from what Google seems to be doing: making one set of rules for queries that are deemed likely to be 'commercial' terms, and another for 'informational' queries. The new Yahoo Search seems to have plunged right into this type of parsing, even changing the way it displays results by offering a heavier-than-usual dose of sponsored links on utterly-commercial terms like 'Gummi Bears.'

It's a delicate balancing act. Ultimately, the user will vote with their clicks and their wallets as they always do. With their strong brand and a huge investment in acquiring smart search companies like Inktomi to drive this latest innovation, Yahoo's chances of success are strong.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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