Yahoo held a conference call on Tuesday to discuss its Q1 earnings. Over the course of the call, CEO Marissa Mayer said a lot about search in her prepared remarks before talking about the subject even more in the Q&A session.
It turns out that she was apparently alluding to an actual product the company is building, which would aim to compete with things like Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft's Cortana. If Yahoo wants to compete in mobile search, which it obviously does, it would certainly make sense for the company to have its own take on this type of search/virtual assistant product.
Some words from Mayer (via SeekingAlpha's transcript of the call):
I really think that there are two types of products that are emerging. The classic web search, call it deep reference web search which is classic Google search, Bing search, and there's a new class of products that's really arising with Cortana, Siri, Google Now. And those products are really heavily differentiated both from each other as well as from the historic legacy products and so that's really where we see an opportunity to play, in something that's mobile and as it moves to, for example, the watch and on to television screens and video, we think that there's a really interesting place to play there to help people make better sense of the content they already have access to, content in their mail, using more context to actually provide higher quality results.
I've given examples, things like, for example, searching for JFK producing essentially my boarding pass and the gate number on a search results page en route to the airport, rather than just producing the John F. Kennedy Wikipedia page. I've used an example like that on previous calls, so that's really where we see a big opportunity. And the profile for searching people's personal information, pulling in context, searching entities and making search more action oriented is a very different problem than crawling a trillion or more URLs and perfectly ordering millions of results.
We think that's something that's potentially more relevant to users of technology as we move forward. And that's really where we're excited to invest and that's why we've worked on things like Aviate, like Search My World and we've been making investments there and we'd like to do more with that and that's what I'm referring to, the classic web search has a different cost profile than that future oriented mobile search that's more personal.
When Mayer says they'd like to "do more with that," she seems to be referring to a product Yahoo is building that it expects to have at least preliminarily built in Q2. That is according to a new report from Business Insider's Nicholas Carlson, who recently had a book about Mayer published. He writes:
According to this source, the product's code-named is Index. It's going to be a smartphone app. Mayer has set a company-wide goal to have a pilot version of Index built sometime during the second quarter. Advertising engineers are already involved in the project, so it's likely the product will be ad-supported. The product's development is being led by executives named Jeff Bonforte and Peter Monaco.
According to the report, Yahoo is betting on being able to compete with Google because of the length of time people have been using Yahoo, and Yahoo Mail in particular. The thinking is that Gmail has only been around for ten years, and that Yahoo Mail has been around for much longer, and that that older information is of great value. At least that's what I'm taking away from Carlson's report.
With all due respect, Mayer knows a whole lot more about search, email, and Yahoo users than I ever will, but this concept seems pretty misguided to me. Is there really that much value to users in being able to more easily recall content from 15 years ago?
From Carlson's report:
"Gmail users have only had their accounts for 10 years," says our source. "Yahoo has many 20 year old accounts. Back then people used to email themselves a lot — store things. To surface that kind of data usefully is exciting."
Our source imagined a user who has been talking about a particular baseball team with his friends for the past decade or so. By scanning that user's inbox, Yahoo will know to keep that user abreast of everything going on with that baseball team.
Wow, I hope they've got something better up their sleeve than that. Certainly Yahoo must get into this kind of search if it hopes to compete, but I'm afraid that I don't see people's fifteen to twenty-year-old Yahoo Mail messages being a game changer.
Of course this is just one random source's presumably random example of what they're trying to do, but if you're going to spill the beans to the media, you should probably come up with something better than that, unless that really is the height of what we're talking about here.
"We do deeply believe in the search," Mayer said on the call. "It's deep in Yahoo!'s DNA from the very start of the company. That said, we are particularly interested in search in the mobile sector, what happens when you involve context. What happens when you involve personal information, from things like e-mail, and so that's really where we've been putting a lot of our innovation on the user search experience side."
Well, at least they've got Firefox. According to Mayer that partnership is profitable so far, and they're even higher on that deal now than they were when they made it. In other words, it's working out better than they even expected.
Mayer has expressed great interest in getting a similar deal with Apple to make Yahoo the default search experience in that browser, but somehow the name Safari didn't come up a single time on the conference call this time around.
Now that would help Yahoo compete much more significantly with Google (and especially its partner Microsoft) in the search space. It wouldn't only put Yahoo in a very popular space, but it would knock Google out of one, assuming that the vast majority didn't immediately switch back over to Google.
New research is out from StatConter saying that Safari accounted for over half (55%) of U.S. mobile and tablet Internet usage in March.
“This emphasises the potential prize in the rapidly growing mobile space for Yahoo, Bing or others if Apple decides to end its default search deal with Google,” said CEO Aodhan Cullen.
“While Safari is the major player in the US for mobile and tablet, it is ranked number four on the desktop with just 10.5% of internet usage share. From a desktop perspective, this makes it less significant than the recent Yahoo deal with Firefox,” Cullen added.
StatCounter also analyzed search engine preferences of Safari users. Unsurprisingly, Google dominates at 83% in the U.S. and 87.9% worldwide. Yahoo is at 4.7% for the U.S. and 2.5% worldwide.
Even still, a Safari deal with Apple, who has already been doing a great deal to distance itself from Google, could give Yahoo a significant boost. Never underestimate the power of users who simply don't care enough to make the switch. As long as Yahoo could provide a service that doesn't turn them off, it would likely gain some significant ground.
But again, Safari didn't even come up in the conversation on the conference call, and some have been pretty skeptical of the company's ability to even compete for the deal with Google likely wanting to renew and Microsoft also reportedly showing interest. And with the newly reworked deal between Microsoft and Yahoo announced late last week, it seems like those companies might be getting along much better now. Maybe Yahoo is backing off a little on that. Or maybe participating analysts just didn't ask the right questions.