Yahoo Unveils Search Assist, Improves Search

When you’re searching for something online, is the search a means to an end, or an end in itself? Yahoo is betting that it’s the former. This article examines the changes the venerable search engine recently introduced.

Tim Mayer’s recent post on Yahoo’s Search Blog explains the company’s new approach: “One thing we’ve learned since launching our own algorithmic search engine back in 2004 is that at the end of the day, people really don’t want to search; they want to get things done.” The changes in Yahoo’s search engine are designed to give “users the answers they’re looking for quickly and easily, and often in one search.”

Wired made a rather snarky comment about this apparent change in direction, saying that it’s not unusual for a business as beleaguered as Yahoo has been lately to “change the criteria for success to help manufacture the illusion of progress. In this case, Yang and company are trying to convince us that the ease of experience associated with its search is preferable when compared to Google’s battery of results which ultimately promote inaction.”

The thing is, when I’m looking for something online, I do want to find it quickly…which is why I go to Google. Yahoo says its new Search Assist can speed up the process, however. It appears when you hesitate over a query, thanks to a little AJAX magic, to give you suggestions and display related topics. If you don’t hesitate, it doesn’t appear. Also, if you don’t use it to complete your query, it rolls back up when the search results page loads.

Yahoo has integrated inline Flickr photos and video players into its search. In other words, if you’re searching for a photo or a video, you no longer have to go to the site on which it’s hosted; you can view the photo or video directly from the search results page.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Google, MSN, and Ask have all modified their searches to take in more different kinds of results. Many searches on these sites now include visual and video results. No search engine has gone as far in redesigning search as Ask, with its Ask 3D, which I reviewed back in June. But let’s take a look at what Yahoo has to offer.

Not surprisingly, Yahoo promotes its new Search Assist right at the top of the page, where you can’t miss it if you’re there to do a search.

 

Look fast, though, because that little yellow note disappears after just a few seconds.

So the search assistant is supposed to pop up only after you type something in and then hesitate. One reviewer tried it with UN (United Nations) and was amazed at the relevant concepts suggested. So at the risk of showing a prejudice for my own country, I decided to try a search on US presidents and see what Yahoo came up with when I hesitated after putting in “presidents.”

 

This nifty little screen scrolled down as soon as I started typing. As you can see if you look to the right, you can turn Search Assist on or off, which is an excellent touch. Looking at the list of suggestions, you’ll notice two things. First, the list takes up a finite amount of space on the screen, because you can use up and down arrows to move your place on the list. Second, in this case Yahoo assumed that I was interested in a list of US presidents, which is not unreasonable.

But what if I wanted to find out something a little more complicated? Say I wanted to compare the foreign policy of US presidents over the years. (Bear with me; I majored in history in college). Seeing the kind of focus I got from Yahoo for this query, I decide to make a few modifications. First I tried “Presidential foreign policy;” that got me a little closer, with “separation of powers” being one of the items suggested. The real winner, though, was “US foreign policy,” as you can see below.

 

You can see my perfect choice is highlighted: “history of us foreign policy.” There is something I’d like to mention, though: most of the searches I started contained the actual key words I typed in. If you want to explore the concepts involved in your query, you have to click to do the search and then click on the little tab that appears below the search box (you can see it in my first screen shot, on the left). In that case, Search Assist gives you something that looks like this:

Sorry the image isn’t clearer; I had to crop and reduce it to fit. But you can see that a number of concepts are correctly listed, as well as people. Do you see that arrow all the way on the right? That’s for scrolling in the concepts section. And, though you can’t see it in this picture, Search Assist includes a “feedback” link at this point.

I was in for a delightful surprise when I did a Beach Boys search to test out some more of Yahoo’s new features. Here’s the screen shot:

 

Okay, why is this notable? Take a look at the first result. You can click on those links under “Play Popular Songs” and listen to the first verse of each of those songs. While the song is playing, the area you clicked on scrolls information about the song (what album it appeared on, with what record label, that kind of thing). Clicking these links will not take you away from the search results.

And what about those enticing links under the picture of the Beach Boys and the “Watch Music Videos” headline? Well, they don’t all work, but at least some of them do – and again, they don’t take you away from your search results:

 

Yahoo deserves some credit here. Even after clicking on the small box for the video, it doesn’t launch right away; you still have to click the button on the video screen itself to start it.

This isn’t entirely typical of the way Yahoo presents videos in its search results. Here’s a screen shot for a search on “otters video.”

 

You can start the video right from the search results. Once again, you don’t go to a different page; instead, a larger screen opens up just below the “play video” image, with AJAX smoothness, and if you choose to close the video, the screen closes the same way.

 

Let’s see, we’ve covered audio and video, what are we missing? Ah, right, photos! Well, let’s try something simple, then, like motorcycle photos:

 

The thumbnails are actually a respectable size (this screen shot has been reduced by about a third). If you want to see a larger version of any of these images, however, clicking on them takes you to the original site at which it’s hosted.

There’s no question that these changes and modifications to Yahoo’s search are helpful. By making these changes, Yahoo is taking its search engine in almost the same direction as the other search major search engines. Google’s Universal search already combines the features that Yahoo is putting together here. Likewise, Ask 3D is quite similar in concept.

The differences are in the details. For example, if you do a search on Google for the Beach Boys, you actually don’t get any images on the first page, though you do get links to lyrics. At the bottom of the first page of search results, Google lists related searches. With a search for the same thing on MSN, the related searches list is on the upper right; near the top of the results are displayed four Beach Boys album covers. The results for Ask, meanwhile, with its 3D approach, are little short of awesome.

The largest differentiating factor for Yahoo is its use of AJAX. It speeds up your search considerably. Also, the ability to turn off Search Assist practically eliminates its potential to be annoying, without at the same time causing it to get lost in the shuffle. To me, however, the best part is the fact that you can get many of the results you’re looking for just by clicking on the appropriate link in the SERPs, without having to wait for your browser to load a new site. It’s a great way for Yahoo to deliver on its promise of one-click searching.

Interestingly, it also improves the “stickiness” of Yahoo’s web site. If you’re finding what you want and you don’t have to leave a site to get to what you’re looking for, you’d be inclined to stay a little longer. You might watch that video right in Yahoo rather than going to the site that’s hosting it. This could be good for those who advertise with Yahoo – and therefore good for Yahoo’s bottom line. Time alone will tell, but perhaps Yahoo is beginning to find its way again. 

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