What’s New at Yahoo?

About five years ago, I had an interview lined up with Tim Mayer, currently Yahoo’s VP of product management, back when he was with Fast/AllTheWeb. Because I ended up at the end of a drip in hospital the night before, the interview never happened. (Long story. Catch me at a conference and ask me about it.)

How five years passed before we chatted, I have no idea. However, I was delighted to catch Mayer at his desk to discuss Yahoo’s ongoing new product launches, especially the company’s recent integration of what it refers to as “Search Assist.”

Search Assist is designed to help users find what they want quicker. As Mayer explains, research has shown that users form query chains: sometimes three, four, or even five reformulations. And if they don’t find what they’re looking for after the second or third attempt, they begin to blame themselves for not being good searchers.

At Yahoo, Search Assist simply sits in the background and monitors the speed of your keystrokes. If it detects you slowing down, it will automatically drop down and complete the query for you and suggest other queries related to the topic as well.

Similar implementations of end-user assistance can be found at other search engines. However, Mayer believes the big difference about the Yahoo approach is “it’s not on the page all the time…We try to understand a lot based on the speed of each individuals keystrokes. For instance, if you type in the word ‘Mike’ and then ‘Gr’ and pause, if we think you’re stuck, this assist layer will drop down automatically.”

Our conversation moved to the topic of blended results, which we’re now beginning to see integrated in Yahoo results, in much the same way as Google with universal and Ask with 3D.

He identified three phases of search. The first involved optimizing and providing the best textual results. Next was to obtain a better understanding of user intent. And the third, which is underway, builds on understanding intent and prioritizing what content type is best for the query and how much content to show.

Search engines can get a good idea of user intent by looking at query logs around specific categories. For instance, Mayer says, “with music artists, we ask ourselves what is it that people are looking for? We know that a lot of people want lyrics, some want the songs or the video, and some want tour dates. There’s a bunch of intents that need to be understood.”

Over the past few months, I’ve written and talked about blended results that include videos, local results, news, and stock quotes in dazzling arrays on the left side of the page. While on the right side in the paid results, it’s still just a bunch of blue text boxes.

Won’t advertisers get slightly miffed about this?

“In an ideal world, you want them both [organic and paid listings] to evolve,” he says. “You can’t have the left side being very dynamic, interactive, and engaging, and the advertising side just being text links. We’re hoping to evolve to make both sides as interesting. And that’s a direction which will be explored.”

Understanding user intent means Yahoo can determine whether a query is a shopping query or a research query. (Check out Mindset.) When a user keys in a commercial, shopping-type query, why not just flip the results and put the paid results (video, maps, etc.) on the left side, I ask.

“Search engines have kind of trained users to know that the left-hand side is for algorithmic results and the right side is for paid. I think flipping them might confuse users.”

Personally, I’m not so sure about that. Ask’s 3D approach has changed its page presentation entirely. I’d be very keen to see some data relating to user feedback, implicit and explicit.

I’ve noticed the odd industry naysayer writing about the end of universal/blended results already. But in my opinion, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of them. Why?

“Going forward, we want to make search much easier and simple,” Mayer says. “Like providing more shortcuts to music and movies. And making search more social by adding more user-generated content, such as videos and photos from Flickr. We’ve also introduced Upcoming,” he adds, referring to Yahoo’s community events calendar.

So, how does the SEO (define) community optimize for all of this? “I think for video, the best thing to do is to upload it to the major services such as YouTube, Metacafe, [and] Yahoo Video, the major services that we’re all supporting and you should show up.”

And, what’s the future of search?

I asked Mayer, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best we could achieve in search, where are we now? “About three and a half to four” he says, adding, “It’s a very exciting time. There’s lots to learn and a lot of different technologies to be built to better integrate different types of content.”

You can hear the entire interview with Tim Mayer, here.

Meet Mike at SES Chicago on December 3-6.

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