Yahoo Search, Mail Revamp Geared to Boost User Engagement

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-09-17

Yahoo Search, Mail Revamp Geared to Boost User Engagement

Analysis: Yahoo, the maligned Internet company, found itself in familiar territory during its Product Runway press event Sept. 16.

The company, once the gold standard of Internet portals where early Web adopters feasted on news and other information, pulled back the curtain on new search user interface tools and a snappier Yahoo Mail interface.

While this would be promising for any other Internet company, it feels like more of the same from Yahoo, which is trying to spark the right combination of innovation and enthusiasm that lead to growth enjoyed by Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Despite boasting some 622 million total users, Yahoo needs a hit. Yahoo itself admitted user engagement was down, with fewer unique visitors flocking there when they can go to Google, Facebook or Twitter to  satisfy their search and social networking desires.

Yahoo's 2008 revenue was $7.2 billion, dropping to $6.5 billion last year. This year, growth looks flat versus 2009, TechCrunch said.

The evidence points to Yahoo having an identity crisis, so much so that it brought in former Microsoft executive Blake Irving to add focus and clarity.

Is Yahoo a media company or a technology company? For example, Yahoo acquired media aggregator Associated Content in May. One week later, it acquired location-based service provider Koprol.

One is a media buy, the other a technology buy aimed at offering Foursquare-like check-ins. It's hard to define what one is, when one keeps redefining itself as it goes. Yahoo's moving target evolution has seen many revolutions.

More than two years ago, the company reworked its approach as an open platform provider under the Yahoo Open Strategy banner.

The idea was to open up Yahoo's core technological coal mines, Yahoo Search and Yahoo Mail, to let developers build third-party widgets and apps that would extend those platforms to the farthest corners of the Web.

That never happened and many of the executives behind that push departed for more lush fields.

Yahoo Missteps its Way from Open to Runway

Yahoo ceded its back-end search and ad technology to rival Microsoft Bing, part of a 10-year deal orchestrated under Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz in July 2009 to bring the company cash from a well-monied rival.

That effectively killed those open efforts such as SearchMonkey, the company's promising search widget project.   

What remains is a husk, a pretty UI wrapper that Yahoo is upgrading for the umpteenth time this fall. Yahoo proclaimed in is search blog the "new Yahoo Search experience for entertainment-related searches will provide richer content results."

Also, the new Yahoo Search experience for news searches will be more conveniently organized with videos, images, articles, and tweets on a single page."

Do such UI tricks sound like a way to get new users? Meanwhile, Google just launched Google Instant, a predictive search technology Yahoo mined in 2005 but never surfaced to great effect.

Yahoo Mail is also changing. This fall, Yahoo Mail Beta will "have a cleaner, sleeker interface that will make it easier for you to navigate through your inbox and use other features built into the product."

This could help keep the hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail users from leaving, but will it lure new users? While Yahoo is applying lipstick to a pig, Google just launched an interesting Priority Inbox feature for Gmail.  

Wisely, Yahoo isn't deluding itself in thinking it can grow alone.

Yahoo earlier this year announced deals to integrate with Facebook, Twitter and Zynga.

Yahoo is also trying to match mobile wits with its rivals in launching applications for Google's Android smartphones and Apple's iPad tablet computer.

While Google manages to wear many Web services hats, Yahoo's own efforts have come off as imitation not innovation, though Search Engine Land claims good things are on the way.

The question is whether this will improve user engagement and, in quick fashion, sales.


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