The Yahoo search blog outlines most of the new changes, but they can be summarized in one phrase; the new Yahoo search understands queries better. This gets instantiated in a two different ways:
1. Yahoo recognizes certain classes of queries and brings relevant vertical search results (e.g. video, photos, news, local, music etc) back into the body of the search results. Both Ask and to a lesser extent Google (with its Onebox) also do this. e.g. try searching for evolution of dance and get the video at the top, or Justin Timberlake and get a capsule of information on the singer at the top.
2. Yahoo aggressively helps users to refine their queries. Although average query length has been creeping upwards, search is still an iterative process for many users. People will type a search string, review the results, realize that it isn’t what they wanted, and improve the query string. Yahoo doesn’t just correct typos and suggest longer search terms that start with the same words, but it also recognizes concepts that are similar. (Ask does something similar in the left rail). E.g. try searching for King Henry VIII and get a suggestion for Catherine of Aragon. It also watches for hesitation as users type and auto-magically makes suggestions when they are needed.
As John McKinley (the ex CTO of AOL) pointed out a few weeks ago, AOL Search had this vision nailed over a year ago, but when new management came in they instituted a much sparser, more “Google-like” model instead. Henry Blodget thinks that this change tanked AOL’s search revenues in Q2, causing it to miss the quarter.
Yahoo has been rolling some of these search improvements out incrementally, and as a result, Compete found that they have both higher search fulfillment rates than Google. More of Yahoo’s search queries turn into clicks than Google’s, suggesting that users are finding what they want more often.
These improvements involve some deep technical problem solving. Finding a way to identify when to show results from a vertical search engine, and understanding related search concepts at scale are both difficult problems. You can cheat and do this with a big list, but that rapidly runs out of steam given the long tail of search queries. This isn’t just a lick of UI paint over the same old search engine.
The question will be whether this is enough. Yahoo has put a lot of time and effort into product innovation. I believe that there are three phases of competition in a consumer technology market; first distribution matters most, then product, and finally brand. Search may have already passed into the “brand” phase of competition. If people believe that Google has the best search, then they may not even try Yahoo’s search to be proved wrong. Yahoo will need to do more than ship great product (as it has done with this product), it needs to also find a way to drive trial from users who have Google as their default.