Yahoo Changes Search in Bid to Differentiate Itself From Google

New Interface Promises to 'Entertain,' Not Just Direct Users to Info

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NEW YORK ( -- One of the deep ironies around Google's near-monopoly over the search industry is that its spare interface and text-based aesthetic has made the act of searching a commodity exercise -- most users don't notice (or care) how they arrive at their digital destination. Yahoo aims to change that perception, as well as make a dent in Google's dominant market share, with a heavily revised search product it released Thursday.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based portal company has invested in a new look for search that is graphically oriented and allows for more display-like advertising placements. While most searches conducted across the site won't be affected immediately, a search for musical artists, movies, Hollywood personalities or trending news topics will appear in a new format the company called the "accordion module." Yahoo has already started integrating Bing's search engine into these new results.

The way it looks is significantly different from current search results. A window of information, called an "overview," loads at the top of the page that breaks up results into regular links, images, videos, events and even results from Twitter. As an example, a search for "Lady Gaga" would yield all relevant web links; images; a video category that shows her music videos; a tab that displays her albums along with music clips; events information that shows any concerts in the users' area, based on the user's IP address; and results from Twitter. Yahoo breaks up the Twitter results along the official feed from the artist but also from Twitter handles that Yahoo has deemed are influential in this category. Searches against movies and trending news topics are broken up similarly.

"We're turning search in a new direction," said Shashi Seth, senior-VP of search for Yahoo. Mr. Seth used to be the product lead on search at rival Google. "This new product for search allows users to be entertained, to be productive and stay informed."

Taking the approach of entertaining the user in his or her search process is perhaps the opposite tack from Google, which has always presented itself as a tool or an intermediary. Yahoo's new search page appears to be designed to keep users on the page.

As in the Lady Gaga example, a search shows multimedia results, such as videos and songs that play on the page. Another stark example of this is in Yahoo's revised image search results. The company has integrated all public images from Flickr, which it owns, into its search, as well as images from the user's Facebook account. Users who have authenticated their Facebook account through Yahoo will see image search results from their Facebook albums as well as all shared albums from friends.

"Our goal is to try and fulfill the user's needs directly on the search page," Mr. Seth said. "Click on one button and not make it disruptive at all."

Yahoo says there are clear sponsorship opportunities for the new "accordion module," but an advertiser has yet to sign on.

"They could conceivably sponsor the whole module so that they can speak more directly to the consumer," said Chi-Chao Chang, VP-search business for Yahoo. "Or they could sponsor one portion of the module, just events or images, for instance." Mr. Chang made clear that this wouldn't necessarily prevent sponsored search links, which would still appear below the module as well as on the right side of the page, what is known in the industry as the "right rail."

The company has also been experimenting with showing more rich media in its search results. In one example, a car company buying search words could show up in a result with an attendant large logo that would appear just to the right of the text link. Mousing over the logo loads a rich-media element, such as a video of a car commercial.

But some observers are wary of the changes and say the move to turn search inventory into display-like inventory and offer more entertaining results runs counter to the purpose of a search query.

"A search engine's object is to deliver relevant results and move the searcher to their destination," said Kevin Ryan, head of search-marketing firm Motivity Marketing. "Any time you start to create a destination with a search results page by cluttering it up and encouraging users to stick around ... that's bad for the search site, revenue generation and the company's shareholders."

Yahoo's search share has been in decline over the past few years. Bing overtook Yahoo in August with a 13.9% share in the U.S. search market, compared to Yahoo's 13.1%, according to Nielsen. Bing gained 2% from July to August, while Yahoo lost 8%. Google gained a percentage point and rose to a 65.1% share.

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