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Yahoo! answers Google Instant with streaming web search

'Google Instant was our idea. And we do it better. Really'

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Yahoo! has unveiled its answer to Google Instant, rolling out a "streaming" search service that it claims is significantly faster than the technology Google debuted last fall. Like Google Instant, it serves up search results as you type. But unlike Mountain View's service, it does not provide results from a relatively complete index of the web. It taps a separate and much smaller index of Yahoo!-curated data designed to serve up "answers not web links".

Known as Yahoo! Search Direct, the service is billed as a beta. It's now live at search.yahoo.com, and Yahoo! will roll it out to search boxes on the Yahoo! home page and other Yahoo! services "over the coming months". It will also show up on mobile devices, including iPads and other tablets, "over the course of this year".

Though the service streams results as you type, the setup is quite different from Google Instant. Whereas Google Instant reloads entire search results pages with each keystroke, Yahoo! pops open a window just below the search box that responds to keystrokes with data stored in a Yahoo! index that's completely separate from the company's main web search index. And yes, it uses separate algorithms to tap this index.

If you type in the name of American basketball star Kobe Bryant, for instance, it will give you Bryant's latest stats. If you type in Hong Kong, it will give you the local time in the Hong Kong and suggest places to visit in the city via Yahoo!'s travel site. But it provides web links as well. If you type in Elizabeth Taylor, you get links to pages on Wikipedia, the internet Movie Database, and Answers.com.

"You don't have to dive deep into anything. You don't have to refresh the page. You don't even have to go to the search results page," Shashi Seth, Yahoo!'s senior vice president of search and a former search product leader at Google, told reporters on Wednesday morning at a press briefing in San Francisco. You can see it in action here:

During the briefing on Wednesday, Yahoo! demonstrated the service with about 30 different keywords, boasting that it could produce 30 different sets of results in 30 seconds and claiming that the competition – i.e. Google – would need at least five minutes to do the same thing.

Asked to comment, a Google spokesman sent us a brief statement in praise of Google Instant. "We launched Google Instant over six months ago to help people get the information they're looking for even faster. We focused on building a user experience that's lightning fast and blends seamlessly into search," the statement read. "We've been thrilled by the response from our users and are not surprised to see competitors explore similar directions. At the end of the day, search is a very competitive space, and this benefits Internet users everywhere."

When we asked Yahoo!'s Seth about the size of the index used by Yahoo! Search Direct, he acknowledged that it's significantly smaller than a full web index (which is now operated by Microsoft), but Yahoo! intends to expand it. "We're taking content that's embedded in [webpages], putting it into a new index, and re-imagining what that index should look like," he said. "It's significantly smaller [than Yahoo!'s main web index], but we are using a smidgen of [the data the company will eventually provide from the index]."

We would argue that comparing the speed of the service to the speed of Google Instant isn't exactly a like-for-like matchup. But Seth disagrees. "How many times do you actually click on a button that [gives you the next page of search results]?" he said. "In 2005, 16 per cent of people had never clicked on the next page. Today, that number is 10 per cent."

The implication is that people don't want or need all the links that a search engine like Google provides. But the sad truth is that it's human nature to only want what's put in front of you.

At this point, Seth said, the Search Direct index is limited to about 15 "categories of data", including news, weather, movies, shopping, sports, and celebrities. It's updated roughly every five minutes, according to Yahoo!.

The index includes ads as well, but Seth said that Yahoo! has yet to work out the proper mix of ads and other content. "We do think deeply about how we want to engage with advertisers in this new environment," he said. "You can imagine that we can provide sponsored results much like we do in search today...we can not only provide [advertiser] branding but also realtime information [from advertisers]."

For instance, he said, Amazon could not only provide links to the Amazon website but also information on "the deal of the day". Seth said that the company has been testing ad formats and working with various advertisers and agencies on various experiments.

Obviously, the Yahoo! Search Direct index is populated by Yahoo! and Yahoo! alone. But Seth indicates that it plans to allow third-parties to feed the index as well. "We will allow other publishers to play in the ecosystem," he said.

When Google launched Google Instant, Yahoo! boasted that it had rolled out similar services many years earlier. In 2005, Yahoo! unveiled AlltheWeb, a small search engine it had purchased a few years before. Like Google Instant, it tried to predict what you were looking for and served up results as you typed. That same year, the company introduced Yahoo! Instant Search, which launched "speech bubbles" of results just below the search box as you typed.

In the fall, Seth told us that Yahoo! had filed applications for several patents covering methods used by Google Instant. On Wednesday, he said that these patents were used by both AlltheWeb and Yahoo! Instant and that they play into the new Yahoo! Search Direct as well. Yahoo! has also filed for additional patents specific to Search Direct, according to Seth. Asked if the company intended to assert it's patents against Google, Seth said we should ask Yahoo!'s legal team. Yahoo! head of product Blake Irving said: "Licensing is something we have done in the past and will continue to do". ®

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