Yahoo overhauls its search engine

Adds feature that suggests new queries, speeding searches and improving results

Yahoo Inc. has made significant enhancements to its search engine, and the company said the changes will boost the speed of searches and improve the accuracy of results.

The engine's new Search Assist feature includes additional suggested search topics on the main results page, along with a list of related concepts to help users explore an unfamiliar subject area, said Tim Mayer, a member of Yahoo's search development team, in a blog post.

For example, Mayer said, a search for "United Nations" would prompt Search Assist to list related topics like "general assembly," "1945," "League of Nations" and "secretary general" on the results page. If a user clicks on "general assembly," a new set of results and concepts related to United Nations General Assembly would be displayed, he said.

Search Assist drops down automatically from the search box page when it "senses" a user is having trouble putting together a query, according to Mayer. But it only shows up when a user needs or asks for it, he noted.

"We did this to avoid a common complaint about assistance technologies on other search engines" -- that suggestions are added to the results page whether or not a user wants or needs them, he wrote.

Yahoo has been testing the new Search Assist feature for several months, and there have been significant improvements over that time in user satisfaction, according to Mayer. For example, there was a 61% increase in successful task completion when users had Search Assist as part of their search, he said.

Yahoo also announced that when videos from YouTube, Metacafe or Yahoo Video show up in the search results, the list will include a player that will allow users to immediately watch the videos. In addition, the updated engine will allow Flickr photos to be embedded in the main results search page, Yahoo said.

In a blog item posted on TechCrunch, Erick Schonfeld said that Yahoo "nailed" guided search requirements with this release -- "as long as what you are looking for can be found somewhere else within Yahoo."

"That's my one pet peeve about Yahoo's new search upgrade," Schonfeld said. "All of these shortcuts are helpful, but they are not all objective. Most of them... point back to Yahoo."

On the social networking site Mashable, blogger Adam Ostrow, noted that the new features may make existing Yahoo users less likely to switch to a competitor. "However, stealing market share from Google will depend on improving their core search algorithm to yield better results, and that remains to be determined," he wrote.

The unveiling of Search Assist follows last week's release of a Compete Inc. report that concluded that while Google Inc. dominates the search business, results generated by Yahoo's engine result lead to more user clicks than do those of the market leader.

The Compete study said that in August, only 65% of the Google searches done by the U.S. online population prompted a user to click on a result. About 75% of all searches on Yahoo led to referrals, the best result among eight top search engines.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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