Yahoo cedes search game to Google, for now

May 20, 2009

(Updated with more quotes)

If you’re losing the game, time to change the playing field. Yahoo is counting on exactly that.

Ari Balogh, Yahoo’s chief technology officer and product development czar, would be among the first to admit that Google reigns supreme in the search space.

“Search the way we know it, with 10 blue links, Google has clearly won that game. Saying anything other than that is just not stating the fact,” he told the Reuters Global Technology Summit.

But Balogh says that doesn’t mean Yahoo is giving up. Inviting comparisons to the automobile industry, now infamous for bankruptcy, ballooning debt and clunky design, Balogh says innovation in search is only just beginning, and it’s too early to declare a winner yet. Ford and its Model T was once the pre-eminent mass-consumer vehicle, but today the once mighty Detroit giant — the only one of the surviving Big Three that doesn’t appear to be flirting with corporate failure — has to fend off the likes of Toyota and Hyundai.

What’s important to understand though is this really is like the auto industry in 1910….At that time, in 1915 or 1920, it sure looked like it was going to be Ford.

Because of the rapid innovation that’s going on, because if you look at that search page, it is an anachronism. When has advertising ever been so ugly in the last 10, 15 years? When has the onus of sorting through a pile of stuff, that much of a pile of stuff, ever fallen on people to do themselves?

There is a long way to go.

So what will the next generation of search tools look like? Balogh says:

There will always be a search kind of like the 10 blue links, but how important that’s going to be in the 3.0, 4.0 versions of where the Web’s going really remains to be seen.

I believe search is going to be far richer. Search is going to be about getting that relevance in that intent flow — whatever it is you’re trying to do. And there’s a whole other round or two to go in the search game and that’s where we intend on playing.

Where else is Yahoo lacking? In social networking, Balogh says. But Yahoo is now ramping up both its look and its usability, focusing on helping users connect with news, with other people, and otherwise get things done.

That will entail remodeling its front page continuously, launching new features from fantasy sport applications to programs that aid movie selections, and making them useable on both the cellphone and the computer. The first features will be trotted out in the summer, Balogh says.

“We’re going for the long play here.”

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