Is Yahoo doomed to be the next Alta Vista?

Analysis: Yahoo could be on the path to oblivion taken by the once-popular Alta Vista

After a couple years of false starts, aborted mergers, and other behind-the-scenes mishaps, Microsoft and Yahoo are ready to form a search partnership to better compete against Google, which continues to blow away its competitors in online search. Under the terms of the deal, Microsoft's Bing engine will power both the Bing and Yahoo search sites, with any differentiation coming at a more superficial level.

It's not exactly clear yet how Yahoo will add value to Bing's search results. According to the companies' press release, "Yahoo will innovate around those listings by integrating rich Yahoo content, enhanced listings with conveniently organized information about key topics, and tools to tailor the experience for Yahoo users."

OK, what rich content? Enhanced listings, key topics, and tools? I contacted both Microsoft and Yahoo on Tuesday for more details, but got none. (Microsoft directed me back to the joint release, and Yahoo didn't respond by the end of the day.)

Which led me to wonder: Is Yahoo the next Alta Vista? OK, I realize many of you won't get the reference -- which is exactly my point -- so allow me to explain. Alta Vista, which ironically is now owned by Yahoo, was once one of the most popular search engines on the Web. In the mid-to-late 90s, Alta Vista provided a streamlined, Google-style search experience. Sadly, the service bounced around from owner to owner, was reborn as a Yahoo-style Web portal at one point, and began to lose market share. Alta Vista is still around, but few people even know it's there.

Yahoo Search is fading

Alta Vista's sad story makes me wonder if Yahoo is following a similar path to oblivion. There's no denying the fact that Yahoo's share of the search engine pie has been shrinking for years. According to research firm comScore, Yahoo had just under 23 percent of U.S. searches in December 2007. By January 2010, Yahoo's share had tumbled to 17 percent.

So will the Bing deal help Yahoo regain that lost share? I don't see how it could. Microsoft is the innovator here, the aggressor with the clever search engine that's gaining market share -- albeit slowly and at significant expense to Redmond. (The January 2010 comScore data shows Bing with 11.3 percent of the U.S. market, up about a half-point from December.)

Yahoo thus far has provided only the vaguest of examples of how it'll lure back search users, many of whom have moved on to Google or Bing. To be fair, the Microsoft-Yahoo deal is very new, and the back-end integration probably won't happen before the end of the year. However, if Yahoo has some cool search tricks up its sleeve, now's the time to let us know.

Home page clutter

Certainly, the reasons behind the fall of Yahoo Search are many and complex. Here's a simple one that may not register with executives, analysts, and pundits, but one that I believe has a visceral impact on average users.

Simply put, the Yahoo home page is too busy, messy, and uninviting. Its search window, though prominent at the top of the page, vanishes among the onslaught of news, photos, ads, and celebrity noise. Yahoo is more like AOL -- hardly a raging success itself -- in that regard. Bing and Google, by comparison, are clean and inviting.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter (@jbertolucci ) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com .

This story, "Is Yahoo doomed to be the next Alta Vista?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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