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5/19/2009
07:05 PM
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Yahoo Aims To Redefine What It Means To Search

The company hopes bolstering its semantic search capabilities will help it better compete with Google for ad dollars and happier customers.

At media event in San Francisco on Tuesday, Yahoo Search executives insisted that Internet users don't want to search.

"Nobody really wants to search," declared Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Yahoo Labs and Yahoo Search Strategy. "People want to run their lives."

The stated theme for the press briefing was "The End of the 10 Blue Links," a title that reflects an evolution of Yahoo's search strategy beyond document retrieval. As described by Raghavan, Yahoo is directing its search efforts toward assessing user intent.

When a user types "Star Trek," Raghavan said, he doesn't want 10 million documents, he wants actors and show times.

Yahoo's bid to redefine search as a matter of intent rather than index size can be seen as an admission that it can't match Google's index.

In August 2005, index size mattered to Yahoo. "[O]ur index now provides access to over 20 billion items," Yahoo's Tim Meyer boasted at the time. A month later, Google's Marissa Mayer answered Yahoo's challenge, stating that Google's index was three times larger than anyone else's. And in July 2008, Google said that its index had reached 1 trillion unique URLs.

So it's perhaps understandable why Yahoo might want to reframe the debate. Given its lack of success challenging Google directly -- Google's April search share in the United States reached 64.2%, a 0.5 point gain, while Yahoo's search share fell to 20.4%, a 0.1 point decline, according to ComScore -- Yahoo wants to change the game.

And to some extent, the game has changed. Everyone is focused on mobile applications now. And in mobile search, user intent is easier to determine because location data often provides a clue about what users want. A search for "Star Trek" from a mobile device is more likely to reflect a desire to find a nearby theater and purchase tickets than it would be from a desktop PC, for example.

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