Yahoo Plugs Search Progress: Toward a Web of Objects

Posted by: Rob Hof on May 19, 2009

With Microsoft set to relaunch its search engine as early as next week, its rivals have been talking up the new and upcoming features of their search engines. Google held an event a week ago to tout some new improvements to its industry-leading search engine. That’s in addition to the widely covered launch of WolframAlpha last week. Today Yahoo took its bow with an update for the press on its progress in search.

My raw notes are after the jump for those interested in some of the details and a Q&A. And since most of the presentation didn’t really match Google’s Searchology event on the cool quotient, I’ll just focus here on the one thing that seemed most interesting, if not entirely unique: Yahoo’s looking to transform search results from a list of Web sites to results that try to fulfill the apparent intent of the searcher with actionable information. Honestly, no search engine any longer just returns a list of Web sites, so that’s a bit of a red herring to my mind, but I do think there’s something potentially interesting here.

“Nobody really wants to do search,” notes Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Yahoo Labs and Yahoo’s search strategy. Instead, he says, they want information they can do something with. Yahoo calls these objects, and they’re cobbled together from a lot of so-called structured data out on the Web, in this context meaning they can be categorized as to the type of information they represent.

A couple of examples of these kinds of search results (with more below): Search on “star trek movie” on your mobile phone and you’ll get back a list of local theaters where they’re playing along with a button to buy tickets. Search on “ba 284” and you get the status of this British Airways flight and the weather where it’s arriving.

StarTrek.jpg

That kind of specific information, while not unique to Yahoo’s results, is something that is clearly useful. And it takes some technological heft, not to mention help from other Web developers, which Yahoo is encouraging through various open initiatives. Of everything I saw, this seemed like something that Yahoo could build on to make its search engine more appealing.

The big challenge, as with many things Yahoo, is to get this cooking on a lot more queries. Some of the improvements Yahoo mentioned are still in testing, and Yahoo couldn’t provide a firm time line on when they’ll be launched widely.

Here are my notes of the event. (And if you want even more, Miguel Helft of the New York Times and Kara Swisher at Boomtown also have accounts of the event):

The first slide reads "Yahoo! Search… The End of the 10 Blue Links." Not a good sign of originality, since that phrase is a cliché that doesn’t describe really any of the search engines today.

Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Yahoo! Labs and Yahoo’s search strategy: “Nobody really wants to search,” he says. “We’re trying to get away from this legacy of 10 blue links.”

So what do you show instead? Show them objects in the real world that satisfy their intent. Yahoo’s taking the insight gleaned from its oneSearch mobile search back to the Web. What’s important is figuring out the underlying intent of the user, not just the meaning of the words. So moving away from paradigm of document retrieval to divining intent.

We need to move from a Web of pages to a Web of objects. So in response to users’ intent, we don’t bring up 10 blue links but objects that satisfy that intent. The idea is to create experiences from objects and their relationships in the real world.

Creating a Web of objects is very difficult technically. The way we’re going to do this is to be open. Not only use machine algorithms but also let people out there—publishers—give us information. Yahoo’s doing that through SearchMonkey.

Yahoo’s also emphasizing open through Yahoo BOSS—Build your Own Search Service—announced awhile ago. Other sites and services can build on top of that. BOSS is now up to 30 million queries a day, nearly up to Microsoft’s total search queries of 40 million a day. That’s up threefold in six months.

Larry Cornett, VP of consumer products for Yahoo Search, shows some key features of Yahoo Search and how it’s trying to elicit intent from the consumer. First he shows Yahoo’s query completion, which suggests spelling corrections as you type. Then he shows an “explore related concepts” that gets generated as you type in a query. So enter “balloons” and the list includes birthday balloons, party balloons, and hot air balloons, along with photos. That’s all under Yahoo’s Search Assist set of features

A few new things are being tried out: Search for “Paris” and you get an illustrated list down the left side “Explore Paris” with various landmarks. Search Pad, introduced some months ago in small test mode, detects when people are doing research by noticing a series of searches, such as “iPod,” ‘iPod repair,” “Apple stores,” noticing that you want your iPod repaired. That research can be saved.

Yahoo also tries to tie together related objects on a particular search. Search on “Beyonce,” and you get her official site along with full-length tracks and videos—which Yahoo says no other search engine allows. Also pulls in news results. (I’m quite sure Google and Microsoft do this as well, however.) Search on “Alex Rodriguez” and you’ll get stats, photos, and the like. Or search on “star trek movie” and you’ll get local movie show times.

It’s the first-year anniversary of SearchMonkey: It’s in 23 markets around the world. Some publishers have seen 15% increase in click-through rates using it. 70 million enhanced results viewed daily. 15,000 developers and 400 applications in the Search Monkey gallery.

Alex Moskalyuk, a software engineer at Facebook, comes on to tell how he uses SearchMonkey to build an application. Facebook wanted to help you find the right people in a search along with geographic info and social actions.

So that’s the first half of Yahoo’s open search experience. The other half is Search BOSS, letting others create their own search services. It really changes what people think search is, says Cornett.

Now Matthew Hertz, CEO of Pipl.com, comes on to tell how the company uses BOSS. Claims it’s the leading search engine for people, which is news to me (I’ve never heard of people saying they’re “pipling” someone, as he claims). What they’re doing with BOSS is adding deep Web discovery and spam detection to the usual crawling open Web pages.

Marc Davis, chief scientist for Yahoo Mobile, talks about what they’re doing in mobile search. Mobile connects us to the people and things we care about on the Web no matter where they are. So for example, on the mobile phone, you can search on “star trek” and get a list of theaters and show times as well as a link to buy tickets, all on the first results page. Or search on “giants” and you get the latest scores on top. Search on “cheap gas” and you get a list of nearby gas stations and a link to a map of where they are. Search on “ba 284” and you get the status of this British Airways flight and the weather where it’s arriving.

With Yahoo oneSearch shortcut, you can get immediately to search on a wide variety of devices. Once you start typing, it offers suggestions based on what other users who typed this in were looking for.

Mobile search is the way people are connecting to each other and the Web, especially in other countries.

Now the Q&A:

When will Yahoo use experimental image search and Web search experience it has shown in the general search page? Cornett says it depends on how testing goes but possibly in coming months.

What is the Web of objects’ significance? Raghavan: If we can divine the user’s intent, that’s obviously something of interest to advertisers--maybe more than just keywords.

Is intent really new, since Web search as a database of intentions is an old concept? Raghavan: Fair comment. But eventually users don’t want to read documents, they want to get things done.

What about real-time search? Raghavan: Real-time has become a bit of a buzzword. BOSS partners are doing this. That said, there’s much more to real-time. It’s not just retrieval of tweets. Cornett: There’s definitely a need that’s being fulfilled by real-time search. But relevance and precision still matters more than just real-time results.

What about Yahoo Answers? That’s nowhere in Yahoo Search. Cornett: We do index Answers. But it’s all about precision and relevance. Davis: Answers often is effectively real-time in itself.

Which of these things are live, which will come out when? Cornett: Two things in bucket test: image searching a destination, and getting images and reviews on restaurant reviews are in test, as well as SearchPad. Rest is live now.

Microsoft’s new search is coming out soon and will have many of these features, so will Yahoo be able to launch these fast? Cornett says it depends on testing with users.

Number of structured objects Yahoo Search can recognize is up more than 400% since last fall.

How will all this help Yahoo competitively? Raghavan: We don’t want to be haphazard about what we put out there. Need to do rigorous testing.

How accurate are you at divining intent? Raghavan: Sometimes we don’t have a clear idea of intent, so often show various apparent intents in the results.

My question: What is an object? Raghavan: Anything in the real world, like professors, politicians, flights, restaurants, etc.—categories of things, or an ontology in geekspeak. Use markup language to label a piece of information as a person, a thing, or something else. The Web of objects is simply a representation of the real world. But it will show up in search results as the two or three or five objects that reflect the apparent intent of the searcher.

Is Yahoo moving back to its roots in curation? Raghavan: In a way, but the world is doing the curating.

Some of these services look like a richer version of oneBox—will Yahoo increasingly offer those objects instead of links? Raghavan: Will offer both objects and links, intermingled.

What about Yahoo stopping search for Blackberry and going only with iPhone, as reported in TechCrunch this morning? Davis: Not quite right. Still developing for Blackberry but iPhone has lion’s share of searches.

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Reader Comments

Sally in Chicago

May 26, 2009 07:15 AM

Yahoo would do well first fixing its email client. It sucks.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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