May 16, 2006 10:03 pm

Yahoo harnesses users’ collective knowledge

Yahoo will on Wednesday set out plans to harness the collective knowledge and interests of its 400m regular users to develop the next generation of search technology and narrow the gap with internet juggernaut Google.

The vision, to be outlined at the company’s analyst day in San Francisco, comes as Google’s growing lead in search and its steady encroachment in e-commerce and other forms of internet activity have touched off a scramble among rivals.

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Terry Semel, Yahoo’s chairman, revealed last week that the company had discussed merging at least part of its search business with Microsoft, though those talks were abandoned.

But in an effort to leap ahead of Google, Yahoo has been experimenting with tapping into the collective wisdom of its users.

Extending these techniques to many of the users of its services could lead to a “step-change” on the internet as big as the one produced by current algorithmic search engines, according to Jeff Weiner, senior vice-president of search at Yahoo. “There is a lot more knowledge in the world to be gained and the way you do that is by going beyond the tens of millions of websites created by editors and publishers and tapping into the authority of everyday people,” said Mr Weiner.

Yahoo hopes to jump ahead of Google by persuading users to do things such as add keywords to photographs they post on the web, publish reviews of favourite restaurants, or attach “tags” to web pages they find useful.

By combining this “social” information with the other results of its search technology, the company claims it will one day be able to produce far more useful results.

“While search marketing, as it exists today, looks like Google has pretty much sewn it up, I wouldn’t discount the discontinuity that could lie ahead as search media [video, audio, restaurant recommendations] becomes more popular,” said Andrew Frank, an analyst at Gartner. However, other analysts believe Yahoo’s attempt to tap into “social” data is unlikely to lead to the internet’s “next big thing”.

“I don’t think it will be a game-changer for them,” said Youssef Squali, an analyst at Jefferies in New York. “Ultimately, the great majority of people will be out there searching in the old way.”

Yahoo has mounted a series of acquisitions to assemble the tools for its push into social search. They include Flickr, a website where millions of people share their personal photos; Del.icio.us, a service where users “tag” web pages they find interesting, creating a filtered view of the web; and Upcoming, a community site for sharing information about forthcoming events.

Mr Weiner said that, as the rise of Google showed, internet users were prepared to switch to a new search engine if it provided better answers, “Social search has that power by virtue of tapping untapped authority and expanding the sources of relevancy. You’re theoretically able to tap into trillions of different knowledge artifacts.”

Google’s big lead in search has triggered a round of speculation in Silicon Valley about deeper mergers or alliances by rivals.

“Among the internet titans there is a lot invested in brand and I don’t think psychologically there is a lot of interest in subjugating their brands to other partners, especially a company such as Microsoft,” said Mr Frank.

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