With Yahoo's share of U.S. searches dipping below 20% in recent years, few see the company as a search leader anymore. But Shashi Seth, Yahoo's new chief of search, says that is about to change. Seth says the collaboration with Microsoft will give Yahoo the resources to develop new kinds of search products that could mimic the serendipity of browsing a newspaper — a sense of surprise and discovery rarely found in the blue hyperlinks of a conventional search query.
One example, Seth says, are Yahoo's plans to offer the "Trending Now" box on its homepage to other websites, probably in the next two or three months. Yahoo updates the Trending Now box every few hours based on an analysis of its search traffic, but the featured topics are tailored to users based on geographic location and Web history, so different users see different trending topics.
"The goal is to get users to discover things that they never would have thought about," said Seth, a former Google executive who arrived at Yahoo in February. "It's a completely new kind of search experience, one where the user didn't ask for anything."
Others are also racing to offer new ways for people to search. Facebook Inc. and Ask.com recently introduced new "social search" features for users to ask questions of actual people, rather than just query a computer algorithm.
"We think as the social Web continues to explode, this is only going to get bigger and bigger," said Scott Garell, president of Oakland-based Ask Networks.
Some at Yahoo have been frustrated with the more centralized and hierarchical management structure at Microsoft. But despite their history as hostile competitors — Yahoo disclosed that it spent $79 million in 2008 on lawyers and "outside advisers" to respond to Microsoft's unsolicited takeover bid — executives say the main challenge is the technical difficulty of the project.
"We're mutually codependent," Morrissey said, "on each other's success."
Swift writes for the San Jose Mercury News/McClatchy.