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The Yahoo Factor

Microsoft and Google are staring each other down in the search wars, but Yahoo’s plan to get local and mobile will change how Americans think about getting information.
January 27, 2005

If the computer hard drive is the engine for the information age, then it derives its power from the ability to search and deliver information quickly and seamlessly.

Without a very good search engine – one that pulls information not only from the Web, but also from the repository of information stored on the computer – the vast power of a networked culture goes untapped.

People are left to their own devices when it comes to tracking down everything from an email to directions to the bank. And that is never good.

Conquering this market has been the primary – but not the only – driving force behind the search wars between Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google. Each has rushed to deploy its own desktop search engine, the second step (behind Web searches) in the all-encompassing search endgame.

Yahoo was last to the game with its Yahoo! Desktop Search, putting it squarely behind the eight ball. While Microsoft and Google have emerged as the current leaders (see What’s Next for Google?), Yahoo has turned its attention to indexing the world by building out its mobile search technologies.

Yahoo!’s SmartView – a competitor to America Online’s MapQuest – launched last March, and enables users find business locations, phone numbers, and directions.

Squaring off with AOL won’t be an easy task. MapQuest has done a good job outflanking Microsoft’s MapPoint, which recently made headlines for its odd search queries results.

But Yahoo hopes to hone SmartView, and integrate that into its Web and desktop search capabilities. Recently, a “Real Time” traffic report was added, where people can locate traffic jams, construction sites, speed zones, and accident reports. The service also includes Yahoo! Maps enhancements which include faster panning and zooming, larger views, and turn-by-turn maps with driving directions.

“Mobile searches are potentially revolutionary,” says Howard Rheingold, who authored the book Smart Mobs and oversees the SmartMobs blog, which tracks the evolution of mobile technologies. “The speech to text for a mobile device would be really helpful – it would be a localizing search.

“The next phase might be that the phone knows who you are and you could find, using your phone, what you need, immediately. This would go far beyond a desktop search.”

Yahoo is poised to capitalize on the mobile search capabilities, though for now, the search wars are all about the desktop.

In the competitive field of search services, Yahoo is gaining ground on its top competitors, according to a survey by Market Researcher Keynote. While Google, Yahoo and MSN were the top choices of the 2,000 consumers surveyed, Yahoo maintained the highest user loyalty, primarily because of its localized search.

All three companies are targeting local search moving into the future, but Google and Microsoft haven’t yet found their groove.  

Simplicity is the key to all successful search engines. Yahoo and its competitors know getting users information fast and easily is the key to success with consumers who are not computer savvy about search.

“The key for users is that they know how to search,” said Rheingold. “There is a definition of literacy involved – in search engines you have to know how to pose a question – if you dont know how to ask what you are looking for then the technology doesnt do it for you.”

New software from Yahoo and others may cross this latest digital divide, making accessibility and ingenuity easy to come by whether youre using a desktop or mobilized search. Either way its a personal resource to help you find what you are looking – via mobile or handheld computers or on your desktop.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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