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“What makes the Internet great is all the people who are on it,” says Patel. Pulse – an improvement on an earlier feature called Yahoo Buzz – also links to most-watched videos, most-downloaded songs, most-purchased apparel, and the like. It “shows the things that users are clicking on and rating and using and buying,” Patel says.

Another front in Yahoo’s social media invasion is Yahoo Answers, which finished its beta-testing phase and became an official Yahoo product on Monday. The service – accessible via a link directly underneath the search box on the new front page – allows people to enter plain-language queries and get replies from other users, who are then rated according to the quality of their answers. Call it a human search engine: it’s a way for someone seeking the best way to get rid of a dog’s fleas, for example, gleaning advice directly from other dog owners, rather than sifting through pages and pages of search results and advertisements for flea powder.

For sheer technical coolness, though, the leading feature on the new front page is Personal Assistant, a panel with six buttons, labeled Mail, Messenger, Radio, Weather, Local, and Movies. Scrolling a mouse pointer over one of the buttons causes the box to expand, showing details such as the user’s latest e-mail messages, a list of his or her Yahoo Messenger buddies who are currently online, local weather reports, and maps showing traffic congestion on local highways.

The Personal Assistant’s animated, interactive behavior means that users can obtain information specific to their needs without having to click away to a Yahoo subsite, such as Yahoo Mail or Yahoo News. It operates on programs written directly into the page’s source code using the AJAX programming approach, which typically works well in some browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox, and less well in others, such as Internet Explorer. But Patel says Yahoo engineers worked overtime to make sure that the Personal Assistant would function correctly in all common Web browsers. “This is probably the most extensive use of AJAX for such a large audience of any page on the Web,” Patel says.

In fact, is the most trafficked property on the Web, with some 180 million unique users every year – 345 million, counting the company’s properties in 24 other countries. But the percentage of actual Web searches conducted using Yahoo has dropped of late, with Google picking up the slack. What’s more, Google now offers its own services such as e-mail, an online calendar, local maps, photo-organizing software, and a personalized search page.

Yet in almost every one of these categories, Yahoo’s services are still more popular than Google’s. Yahoo’s challenge has been creating a unified user-centric packaging for its at times unclear “core identity” and its complex, poorly integrated set of offerings.

Yahoo’s redesign is an attempt to smooth access to its services, and could well help to pull users back from other personalizable sites, such as Google and Microsoft’s new It’s a sortie in Yahoo’s Web 2.0 offensive, and – with investors watching closely – it’s a battle the company can’t afford to lose.

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