Yahoo and Search: Innovation or PR?

December 4, 2013

I read “You Are the Query: Yahoo’s Bold Quest to Reinvent Search.” The write up explains that “search” is important to Yahoo. The buzzwords personalization and categorization make an appearance. There is no definition of “search.” So the story suggests that the new direction may be a “feed”, a stream of information. The passage I noted is:

So what is Yahoo building? To wit, the company is working on a new “personalization platform,” according to the LinkedIn profile of one Yahoo senior director. Cris Luiz Pierry, the director who headed up Yahoo’s now-shuttered Flipboard clone Livestand, writes that he is heading up a “stealth project,” and that he is “building the best content discovery and recommendation engine on the Web, across all of our regions.” Pierry also has an in-the-weeds search background, with experience in core Web search, ranking algorithms, and e-commerce software — which may come in handy when dealing with monetization.

A stealth search project. Didn’t Fulcrum Technologies operate in this way between 1983 and its run up to a much needed initial public offering in the early 1990s? Wasn’t the newcomer SRCH2 in stealth mode earlier in 2013?

The hook to the new approach may be nestled within this comment in the article:

That search experience would likely be layered on top of another company’s Web crawler, like Microsoft’s Bing, which took over those operations for Yahoo in 2010, as part of a 10-year deal. (More on that later.) Beginning in 2008.

Indexing the Web is an expensive proposition. No commercial publisher can afford it. Google is able to pull it off via its Yahoo-inspired ad model. Yandex is struggling to find monetization methods that allow it to keep its indexes fresh. But other Web indexers have had to cut back on coverage. Exalead’s Web index is thin gruel. Blekko has lost its usefulness for me. In fact, looking for information is now more difficult that it has been for a number of years.

Another interesting comment in the article jumped off the screen for me; to wit:

We firmly believe that the Search Product of tomorrow will not be anything alike [sic] the product that we are used to today,” says the job description for the search architect. The posting also name-checks Search Direct, Yahoo’s version of Google Instant, as the “first step” in changing the landscape of search. After testing out a few queries on Yahoo’s home page, the feature, which looks up queries without requiring the user to hit “search,” looks to be dormant.

The write up concludes with this speculative paragraph:

Some theories: The company could be planning a Bing exit strategy for 2015 or earlier, and look to partner with another Web crawler, aka Google. Some reports have said Mayer has been cozying up to her former company on that front. Or Yahoo could be rebuilding its own core search capabilities, though that’s the unlikeliest of scenarios because that would be a nightmare for the company’s margins. Or Yahoo could even be beefing up its team just enough to gain more authority within the Bing partnership, in case it wanted to advise Bing on what to do on the back end.

What I find interesting is that the term “search” is not really defined in this write up or most of the information I see that address findability. I am not sure what  “search” means for Yahoo. The company has a history of listing sites by categories. Then the company indexed Web sites. Then the company used other vendors’ results. What’s next? I am not sure.

Observations? I have a few:

First, anyone looking for specific information has a tough job on their hands today. In a conversation with two experts in information retrieval, both mentioned that finding historical information via Web search systems was getting more difficult.

Second, queries run by different researchers return different results. The notion of comparative searching is tricky.

Third, with library funding shrinking, access to commercial databases is dwindling. For example, in Kentucky, patrons cannot locate a company news release from the 1980s using public library services.

The article about Yahoo is less about search and more about public relations. Is Yahoo or any vendor able to do something “new” in search? Without defining the term “search,” does it matter to the current generation of experts?

Personally I don’t want to influence a query. I want to locate information that is germane to a query that I craft and submit to an information retrieval system. Then I want to review results lists for relevant content and I want to read that information, analyze the high value information, synthesize it, and move on about my business.

I want to control the query. I don’t want personalization, feeds, or predictive analytics clouding the process. Does “search” mean thinking or taking what a company wants to provide to advance its own agenda?

Stephen E Arnold, December 4, 2013

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