How Yahoo! Plans to Tackle Google

    August 6, 2004

In the first part of our interview, Yahoo’s Director of IT, Product Management and Search, Ken Norton, alluded to Yahoo’s upcoming personalized search. Despite skepticism and uncertainty over this new area, Ken and his co-worker Grace Chan, Yahoo’s Product Manager, seem very confident in Yahoo’s ability to succeed in personalization.

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Brittany Continues Her Purple Induced Haze...
Brittany Continues Her Purple Induced Haze…

“In general I think people are skeptical and they should be,” Ken admitted. In the search industry, he said, things have been done in the past that didn’t improve the quality of search so people have the right to question new technology. However, he said, “if you were to ask a focus group about the Palm Pilot in 1995, everybody [would have said], ‘Nah! PDA, I don’t want it! It’s too big. I’m not interested.’ And all of a sudden, this [has become] a product that makes everybody go, ‘Wow, this has changed my life!'”

Yahoo! takes its critics “with a grain of salt” because, Ken says, some of these people are just “afraid of change.” However, he also realizes that it’s hard for people to understand what can be done with personalization “because nobody’s done it right.”

He also says people should take into account that personalization involves customization. Users could tell search engines to exclude certain sources from search results. “Consumers respond much more positively to that because there’s immediate payoff,” he said. “I would certainly encourage people to think about personalization as a pretty broad topic, not just as some sort of creepy re-ranking of results.”

Ken says Yahoo! already has found success in personalization through MyYahoo, which has become popular. Despite this success, however, Ken said, “We at Yahoo! need to be careful when we evaluate personalization.” Yahoo! will be looking at how personalization improves search quality, comprehensiveness, and professionalism. Yahoo! will keep the existing core metrics of search in mind during these evaluations.

Grace, who works with Yahoo’s Local Search and Yellow Pages, is very familiar with personalization. I asked her how Yahoo! plans on competing with Verizon’s Super Pages, which has been a topic of discussion at this conference.

“ has basically added some enhanced content to their Yellow Pages database, similar to what we’ve done, but I don’t think they have extended it as broadly as we have,” Grace replied. “It still feels like an IYP experience.” In addition to bringing in content from multiple search engines, Yahoo! also aggregates websites and incorporates that content in the listings. “We use a structured data backbone and we’re combining that with the unstructured content to bridge that gap and bring it all together in one place.”

Ken agreed, saying that the great thing about the search industry is all the metadata out there. Yellow Pages information has been historically “very, very, very limited,” he said, but the Yahoo! Team has now gone beyond the Yellow Pages data.

Grace also pointed out that websites are not required to participate in Overture’s Local Match, which brings together searches with local businesses. Anyone with a local business can buy Local Match and bid on keywords. When asked whether the blurbs Overture will create for businesses without websites will be incorporated into Local Search results, Grace responded, “This is something we’re exploring. We’ll consider incorporating it into other things”

In an effort to create awareness about Yahoo! Search, Yahoo! has added search bars to all areas of its site. The company has also launched a new branding strategy, involving lots of purple, dubbing Yahoo! Search “the engine of possibility.” But it’s going to take a lot more than that for Yahoo! to successfully compete with Google.

Ken offered some insight into Yahoo’s strategy for getting Google users to make the switch. “It all comes down to brand loyalty,” he said, “and there’s not a lot of brand loyalty when it comes to search. When users engage in our search, we want to be the highest quality search engine on the web. We want to delight them and win them over.”

Another point is that many searchers use more than one engine. “When they do that search on Yahoo,” Ken said, “we want to make it so good they don’t need backup.” Yahoo! will be exploring ways to improve the search experience, building on the company’s network foundation.

Over the next few years, Ken predicts we’ll see “a solidification of the top players.” Additionally, in what he calls the third phase of search, he believes there’ll be clear differentiation between the resources offered by these companies. During this phase, the search experience will improve. Search engines will find new ways to improve the user relationship and understand user intent, therefore making searchers feel like they are recognized as people and not just another anonymous entity.

Of course that’s not all Yahoo! has in mind. I’ll be posting part 3 of this interview, and telling you what Yahoo! thinks of Microsoft, soon.

See what Yahoo! revealed in the first part of our interview here.

Brittany Thompson is an administrator for and contributes to the Insider Reports with her regular articles and interviews.