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Search Engines Who Search

by: Susan Esparza, June 2005

Recent months have brought in new projects from the four major search engines. But while two follow a pre-worn path, two engines are taking an old idea and making it new.

Late in May, Google's Factory Tour held the attention of the search engine marketing world for a day and while they gave out some "fun facts", like how much pasta Googlers eat, the day was thin on substance. The only real announcement was the introduction of Google's personalized homepage. Variously referred to by sources as 'a portal', 'a walled garden' and 'not a portal', the personalized home lacked any really exciting innovations. It was a bizarre re-tread of the My Yahoo! of yesteryear.

Similarly, over at MSN, they announced a move into local search. Local search is absolutely necessary to a search engine but we've been there. Even if MSN was doing something exciting and new with local search (they're not but they promise they will with the introduction of Virtual Earth later this summer), it's still just the same thing that everyone else has done. Granted MSN Search is only a few months out of beta but it's still just old news.

However, over at Yahoo! and Ask Jeeves, the old dogs are learning new tricks. Yahoo! Mindset and Ask Jeeves' Zoom and Answers are three very cool new ways of refining search queries for greater relevancy.

Released on May 26th, Zoom is a contextually generated side navigation that allows a visitor to narrow or expand a search or to search on a related name. Based on the existing Teoma clustering technology, Zoom was aimed at getting a visitor to the information they were looking for as painlessly as possible. And by all reports, it seems to be working. In a Q&A session at Cre8asite Forums, Jim Lanzone, Senior Vice President, Search Properties for Ask Jeeves stated, "Feedback has been amazing. People love Zooming." Additionally, he says that A/B testing has shown a dramatic increase in the ability of searchers to find the information they needed using the new Answers feature.

Over at Yahoo, the search refinement comes on a slide bar. Yahoo! Mindset is a deceptively simple project from the Yahoo research labs. A visitor types his query into the search box and receives the standard Yahoo results. The difference is in the slide bar just underneath the search box. On one end is Shopping, on the other, Research. The default position, i.e. the normal Yahoo SERPs is dead in the middle. As the visitor moves the slider toward one side or the other, the results shuffle around, pushing up the more relevant pages based on the user request. A small bar under the result gives the visitor an idea of where Yahoo is placing the page on the sliding scale.

The interesting thing about Yahoo and Ask Jeeves though, is not what the new products offer to the consumer. While it is important to increase user satisfaction, the real goldmine here is that every time a visitor uses any of these services, the search engines learn a little more about how people search and what they are looking for. Because they can't currently predict what a user will be interested in, they can't yet do away with secondary filtering systems but the more data they gather the more likely that becomes. Furthermore, both products offer a deeper glimpse at the inner working of the search engines. Particularly with Yahoo, one can easily see what balance of shopping and research it takes to make the top site in any field.

Contrast that to MSN and Google's offerings recently. The other two search engines are following Google's typical model of throwing themselves after a hundred different things and are ignoring their core search product. It's an approach that has always netted Google a great deal of attention and praise. With their stock price over $300 a share, they still seem like the golden child that can do no wrong. But the bottom line is that search companies should be focusing on search and right now, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves are ahead of the game.