Yahoo Returns to its Roots with 'Search Assist'

Sensing a possible runaway victory by Google in the critical search category, both Microsoft and Yahoo are busy trying to improve the "search experience." The question Yahoo's been facing is how to help its users feel they've found what they're looking for, without kicking them out of Yahoo territory so fast they forget it was Yahoo that brought them there.

But Yahoo's latest enhancement, launched this morning, may be new to the search page but not all that new to the search experience: Its new "Search Assist" acts like an auto-complete feature, intercepting your text as you type and offering a handful of completed search queries.

Though Google doesn't have such a feature on its central page at present, it does offer very similar functionality through its Google Toolbar, as well as though the search bar in Internet Explorer 7.

Yahoo's general manager and senior vice president for search, Vish Makhijani, stated this morning, "We know that consumers want a complete answer, not a bunch of links, and the changes we've made are focused on getting people to the best answer - whether it be a Web link, photo, video or music clip - in one search." Note how Makhijani referred to users as "consumers," and you'll have a better idea of the company's audience targeting plans. It's sounding much less like "users" of software, and more like eyeballs for advertisements.

Snapshot of Yahoo Search with 'Search Assist' enabled

For now, the feature does show off the relative speed of AJAX, which helps the page pass a partial query off to Yahoo's server, and come up with possible results. In our tests, we discovered these possibilities aren't just "fill-ins" that may come at the end. They could conceivably rearrange the terms on the query line if the result has a closer correlation to a possible context. For instance, while we typed in "Apple iphone" (misspelling the phone's name on purpose), one of Search Assist's possibilities was, "apple cuts iphone prices." It matched our misspelling, but it might also have alerted us to an interesting headline.

Yahoo's feature also appears to be far less ambiguous than Google's. One annoying habit the Google Toolbar has, even though I'm a relatively fast typist, is that it jumps to conclusions about my possible query based on the popularity of its existing queries. For example, I just barely manage to get the "P-a" poked out in the query "Panasonic Blu-ray," and Google has already flashed me "Paris Hilton" along the top of its suggestions.

By contrast, Yahoo appears to make suggestions based on a mix of both popularity and practicality. It doesn't jump to conclusions until I've entered three letters. At "P-a-n," it indeed suggests "panasonic" as one possibility, but also "Hayden Panettiere," a popular actress from an NBC TV series whom I had never heard of until today. (I don't get out much.)

It also appears that Yahoo is now capable of gleaning more information from existing text, in order to make further suggestions about how searches can be refined. In searching my own name, for instance, the new drop-down assist button beneath the search line in the results page linked me to my former pseudonym, to my wife with whom I've written several books, and to my former publication (Computer Shopper) - information that could only have been gleaned by studying one of my online bios.

A Yahoo spokesperson told BetaNews this morning that the company is also working to more closely integrate multimedia content into its search results. That does appear to be true for popular searches ("Ben Affleck") where a few thumbnails appear along the top row; but not for more historical searches ("Bertrand Russell," "Golda Meir") where photographs are arguably just as easily accessible through archives.

"We've been testing Search Assist over the past few months and have seen significant improvements in user satisfaction from those tests," writes Tim Meyer for Yahoo's Search blog this morning. "One metric we found was a 61% increase in successful task completion when users had Search Assist as part of their search experience."

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