Yahoo!’s Evolution

Last October, Yahoo made the most significant change to how its search engine has operated since its inception. It replaced its own human-powered listings with Google’s crawler-based results. Only seven months later, the “New Yahoo Search” was rolled out in early April, complete with an online tour to tout the revamped service.

What’s different this time? Quite a bit. Fortunately, the new improvements and features enhance earlier improvements rather than distract from them.

Streamlined Look

A new, search-dedicated page was added, allowing those wishing to bypass all the Yahoo portal and network information that crowds the regular Yahoo home page to do so. The Yahoo Search page has a Google-like pure search interface. Default searches hit Yahoo’s Web search index, but tabs along the page’s left side provide direct access to directory, news, yellow pages, image, and map searching.

“A lot of people have said, ‘I want something a little more search oriented,'” said Jeff Weiner, Yahoo’s senior vice president for search and marketplace. “We’re essentially giving our consumers a choice. When it comes to just pure searching, we think this is going to be delivering more of what our consumers want.”

Regardless of whether you search from Yahoo’s Search or home page, you’ll encounter new tabs at the top of the search results page. By default, the Web tab will be selected. You’ll see matching listings from across the Web. Presently, these are still powered primarily by Google.

Select the Directory tab and your search will run only against sites listed within Yahoo’s own human-compiled index of Web sites. The News tab brings matches from across Yahoo’s news content. New tabs have been added for image searching, information powered by Google Images, and yellow pages search.

Searching Through Yellow Pages

Of course, online yellow pages search isn’t new, but it may be something overlooked by searchers. It’s certainly worth a try at Yahoo if a default search for local information comes up lacking.

For example, I’m traveling to the U.S. soon and need to stop by a skateboard shop. A search for skateboard shops in Pasadena brought up a few possible matches. Would a yellow pages search do better? It’s easy to check. By clicking on the yellow pages link at the top of the new Yahoo search results page, the same query ran against Yahoo’s yellow pages information.

Sadly, there were no matches. In looking at the results page, I could see why. My original query was parsed, so the city, Pasadena, was correctly placed in the city box of the yellow pages’ search form. The subject? It was “skateboard shops in.” By changing this to “skateboard shops,” I did come up with a match.

Clearly, the parsing could have been better. Another solution for searchers is to simply to do a yellow pages search from the start, via the Yahoo Search home page. I don’t expect perfection from the yellow pages option yet, but I’m glad to have easier access.

New Shortcut Tricks for Yahoo Search

Yahoo formally unveiled a number of “shortcuts,” methods to get directly to answers or specialty search results using words. The new Yahoo Tour has a nice page that illustrates these as well as a short guide to them. Here’s a rundown:

  • Get maps. Use “map” and a location when searching. You’ll be shown an actual map at the top of your results, such as “map 1600 pennsylvania avenue washington dc” or “1600 pennsylvania avenue washington dc map.”

  • Get weather. Use “weather” with a place name, and you’ll see the weather for that area, such as “pasadena weather.”
  • Get local listings. Use a U.S. Zip Code with a word, and you may be treated to local listings from Yahoo’s yellow pages, such as for “90210 shopping.”
  • Get dictionary definitions. Need the definition of a word? A slick, new feature allows you to put “define” before the word, causing a definition to appear at the top of your results, such as “define epitome.” Misspellings may even get caught. “Define epitime” and “define epitame” were both correctly identified as misspelled.
  • Get news. Start your query with “news” and if Yahoo has matching news content, it will display it prominently at the top of its results, such as “news tornadoes.”
  • Get Yahoo Yahoo has a variety of services other than search, such as Yahoo Mail and Yahoo Shopping. If you know the name of a service and want to get to it quickly, enter the name without the word “Yahoo,” but with an exclamation mark, such as “mail!” or “shopping!.” You’ll be taken right to it.

Ask Jeeves recently began to insert direct answers in its results, which it calls “Smart Answers.” You may assume this will be the biggest thing in search engines since Google revived AltaVista’s use of tabs.

This may be the case, but we’ve already had direct answers. In 1998 (and greatly expanded in 1999), Excite did what both Yahoo and Ask Jeeves rolled out years later, using trigger word shortcuts and showing “answers” within matches. Regardless of who did it first, it’s nice to see the functionality return.

A final but useful Yahoo trick. Beside the title of each Web page listing at Yahoo, you’ll see a little icon. It’s supposed to look like two computer windows on top of each other. Click, and the Web page you’ve selected appears in a new window. The window with search results will remain open.

In Conclusion

Yahoo described these latest changes as part of an “evolution” to improve its search service. It’s a good word to use. The site had its revolution back in October, when it shifted to crawler-based results. The latest useful changes add to, but don’t interfere with, those changes. That’s welcome.

It’s particularly important Yahoo’s and other search engines’ efforts to catch up with Google do not subject searchers to massive redesigns every few months. AltaVista once pursued such a strategy. Regular relaunches did little to reverse its decline in popularity. This was because most of the relaunches did little to improve the service’s core relevancy. It’s confusing and frustrating for loyal users to find things no longer work as before.

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