Yahoo in Control of Open Search

How much control do consumers need, anyway?

This column, originally published today in MediaPost, continues in the extended entry.

That’s the most profound question that strikes me the more I hear about
Yahoo’s latest "open search" initiative, described in some detail
on the Yahoo Search Blog
.
So far, it’s just the teaser release, the equivalent of those
"Cloverfield" trailers where you see everyone running for their lives
but the monster’s totally out of sight. The story’s
gradually coming together, though some versions of it differ.

From all versions, the end result is clear, thanks to screenshots on
Yahoo’s blog and elsewhere. Yahoo writes, "Instead of a simple title,
abstract and URL… users will see rich results that incorporate the
massive amount of data
buried in websites — ratings and reviews, images, deep links, and all
kinds of other useful data — directly on the Yahoo! Search results
page."  The search results should in turn become more useful, so
consumers may spend a
little more time on the search engine results page to scan the
additional content, but they’ll spend less time clicking on search
results that don’t match what they’re looking for.

The end result, while looking impressive, is a tacit defeatist
declaration from the search engines, as it implies they can’t figure
out how to provide more enhanced search listings on their own. They’re
basically crowdsourcing
search result descriptions; the technology, or the engines’ internal
staff, can’t do it alone. And this isn’t just about Yahoo. Google’s so
invested in using manpower to improve its search results that many of
its emerging
products use humans in some way, including Google Base, Co-Op, and
Knol; it even created a
game out of people tagging images
to improve its results.

Consider Google Co-Op’s Subscribed Links component, where users
subscribe to their favorite publishers, and when those publishers have
content relevant to a search from a subscribed user, a featured listing
will appear on the page. For
example, I subscribed to
OpenTable.com’s link
.
When I ran a search on the restaurant "Le Bernardin," the subscribed
link to OpenTable appears as the fourth natural search listing,
following two results for the restaurant’s official site and
one for New York magazine.

Fairly successful Subscribed Link publishers like Open Table and Search
Engine Watch have a few thousand subscribers. Digg, a runaway success,
has over 20,000. I’m amazed that many people can figure out how to
subscribe, as it’s
practically hidden in Google. The
directory
has all of 48 links, hardly a vast menu of subscription options.

There are several obstacles preventing Co-Op from working. First, it
requires users to take concerted actions to improve their search
results, and people generally don’t like working that hard, especially
for something so functional.
Second, users will most likely subscribe to publishers they already
visit, providing the publisher with only a marginal benefit; less
popular sites that could benefit more will have a hard time attracting
subscribers in the first place.
Third, people expect the search results to be as relevant as possible,
so if a site they like is relevant to a search, it’s Google’s job to
make it rank well.

How does this relate to Yahoo’s plans for opening its search results?
Google’s Subscribed Links offer one way for users to take control over
their search results thanks to publishers’ contributions, which is
conceptually
similar to Yahoo’s open search. Some of the best coverage of Yahoo’s
news came from Search Engine Watch Managing Editor
Kevin Newcomb in ClickZ
.
He wrote how users will see the improved search listings when they
"enable a Yahoo Search plug-in created by a publisher," though such a
plug-in was barely mentioned in other outlets’
coverage.

He later told me what else he heard from Amit Kumar, director of
product management for Yahoo Search. Newcomb said, "From what Amit told
me, publishers will have to create a plug-in that users won’t have to
install as much as
enable. He compared it to Facebook apps, where you turn them on or
off… Yahoo will be collecting plug-ins in a ‘publishers gallery’ to
make it easier for users to find and enable them (similar to Firefox or
Wordpress plug-ins),
and publishers can offer them on their own sites
too. Yahoo will be automatically enabling some of the more popular
plug-ins for all Yahoo visitors, but he didn’t say which ones or how
that would be decided."

My main concern centers on how much control users have over their
search experience. Like every other pundit, I love spouting off on how
consumers are taking more control over their media experience, but
consumers don’t need to control
every part of it. Consumers can let others decide when the new Indiana
Jones movie hits the theaters, whether "Quarterlife" airs on MySpace or
NBC, or how natural search results rank. Media and technology companies
can exert
their control where it helps.

The question over Yahoo’s open search is whether consumers will get too
much control, and if that will be more than they need. Just look at the
before and after pictures on Yahoo’s blog with the Yelp example. Who
wouldn’t want
the enhanced edition? Presumably, some publishers could abuse this
platform, but there are sites like spam blogs that currently try to
abuse natural rankings, and in either situation it’s up to the engines
to ensure these sites
don’t rank well, if at all.

It’s Yahoo’s job to improve its users search experience. If this helps
users, and it clearly should, then it should be part of the natural
search results. If it doesn’t generally help users, Yahoo should be the
arbiter. If
Yahoo’s too selective with enabling some publishers but not others,
then it may improve some search results for some users while at the
same time calling into question how fairly it ranks all results for
everyone. Advertisers could
also get enraged if Yahoo automatically displays open search results
for their competitors but not for them.

That puts Yahoo in an unenviable position. Exert too much control and
various constituents raise hell. Leave all the control to consumers and
they probably won’t exercise it. Yahoo can still strike the right
balance and run circles
around Google Co-Op in the process. For the chance to outmaneuver
Google, the reward’s worth the risk.