Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) hopes to remain relevant and competitive in the search engine market, battling for users not only against nemesis Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) but also against its future search partner, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT).
So said Yahoo executives during a press conference on Monday during which they announced enhancements to Yahoo’s search engine, Web mail and instant messaging products, three areas that Yahoo considers key to its success.
Although Yahoo will rely on Microsoft’s Bing to provide it with search crawling and indexing, Yahoo will work separately on its search user interface, and will do its best to make it more useful than Google’s and even Microsoft’s.
“We collaborate [with Microsoft] on the back end, but we compete on the front end,” said Prabhakar Raghavan, Yahoo’s senior vice president of labs and search strategy.
In fact, the heavy-lifting, back-end work of crawling and indexing the Web is of less strategic importance in search right now than the user interface experience, he said.
“What we want to compete on is the front-end experience,” Raghavan said. “The battle has moved beyond the back end.”
There has been much speculation over what, if anything, Yahoo will do in search engineering and research once the deal with Microsoft kicks in and Bing begins to power Yahoo searches.
On Monday, Raghavan and his colleagues made it clear that Yahoo has no plans to completely exit the stage of search innovation.
“On the [search] content side, it would be a mistake to think of us as a version of Bing. We’re not a version of Bing. We’re the Yahoo Search experience and that will continue. It’s completely independent of anything they choose to do,” Raghavan said.
Microsoft and Yahoo struck a long-anticipated search deal in late July in which Microsoft’s Bing search engine will power Yahoo’s search site. The deal calls for Yahoo to sell premium search advertising services for both companies, and for Microsoft to handle the text-based, pay-per-click search ads.
The 10-year deal will start to be implemented when the companies obtain clearance from government regulators. The implementation phase could take up to two years to complete, the companies have said.
For now, Yahoo is testing a new search results page that is available randomly to people worldwide and offers new features to filter search results so that users can better refine their results.
For example, users are given options to narrow the results to those from specific Yahoo or popular external sites, and are given suggestions for exploring related concepts.
In addition, Yahoo is making its engine more “intelligent” so that it can learn from prior searches and adjust the experience accordingly.
Yahoo will also make more easily accessible security features that already exist in its search engine that alert users about malicious sites that may contain malware or may attempt to fraudulently steal sensitive information via phishing tactics.
Yahoo will also enhance and feature more prominently tools to help users refine queries on the fly, like Search Assist, and organize information they find, like Search Pad.
Yahoo also wants to let its search engine users perform and complete more tasks within the search interface, by bringing in more information to the results page from Web sites like the customer reviews site Yelp.
All of this is designed to make Yahoo’s search engine more “personally relevant” than it and competing search engines have been so far, said Larry Cornett, vice president of search products and design.
For Yahoo Mail, the company will add what it calls an “application box” with wares from both Yahoo and other providers, so that people can accomplish more within the mail interface.
In addition, Yahoo is taking a page from Twitter and Facebook and giving Yahoo Mail users a box to enter a status message about what they’re doing or thinking about.
Yahoo is also simplifying how Yahoo Mail users share photos, whether they’re stored on their hard drives or online on sites like Flickr, said John Kremer, vice president of Yahoo Mail. For example, Yahoo has raised the ceiling on photo attachment size from 10M bytes to 25M bytes.
To help people prioritize messages, Yahoo Mail will highlight the ones coming from senders who are in users’ contact lists.
The enhancements are rolling out today in the U.S. and abroad in the coming weeks.
On the mobile front, Yahoo Mail’s version for HTML mobile browsers will gain features previously available only on the desktop, such as the ability to download Microsoft Office documents, PDF files and photos. These new versions are available now on the iPhone’s Safari browser.
Meanwhile, the beta of Yahoo Messenger version 10 is debuting Monday, with features like high-quality, full-screen video calls, an “updates” tab that notifies users of recent actions from friends, and a revamped “Insider” welcome page that can be customized by zip codes.
As Yahoo executives have said in the past, the company believes that social features are more useful when woven into the context of Yahoo services. This means Yahoo doesn’t view social networking as a “destination” service, as it is in Facebook and MySpace.