As Google keeps growing its share of search queries, it’s hard not to wonder if anything’s going to slow it down. Tonight, Yahoo is throwing up a long pass in hopes of changing the game that Google already seems to have won.
Yahoo Search BOSS, for Build Your Own Search Service, is a new Web services platform that will give Web developers access to Yahoo’s search technology. Specifically, it’s opening up access—first in the form of so-called application programming interfaces and later through custom services from Yahoo and other partners—to its Web, news, and image indexes. Other sites and services will be able to combine Yahoo’s search results with their own data sources and control both the ranking and the presentation of search results on their sites. (More technical details and further context are at Yahoo’s Search Blog, TechCrunch, Search Engine Land, and ReadWriteWeb.)
Essentially, it’s enlisting the help of potentially thousands of Web developers to use Yahoo’s technologies to build their own customized search services, such as niche vertical search, image search, social search, or whatever. The ultimate goal, says Prabhakar Raghavan, chief strategist for Yahoo Search, is to disrupt the search market.
In other words, to disrupt Google. I have to admire Yahoo’s forthright reason behind the service. On the other hand, the assertion that Yahoo’s search infrastructure is “one of the most valuable assets on the Web,” while probably true, is a not-so-veiled message to Microsoft, which made what some considered a half-hearted offer for Yahoo’s search business a month ago and continues to stalk the Internet portal.
BOSS (which does have a better ring to it than the more technically correct acronym BYOSS), seems unlikely to do much to Google in the short term, but it’s an interesting maneuver for Yahoo. If it works, it will start to atomize the search business and chip away at Google’s dominance by helping developers more quickly release innovative new search services. And even if it doesn’t disrupt Google anytime soon, Yahoo will benefit from running its search ads—a requirement for use of the technology when the monetization piece launches several months down the road—on more pages.
OK, I know, this is Yahoo—the company that recently swallowed its pride with a deal for Google to place search ads on Yahoo pages. That hardly instilled confidence that Yahoo is committed to search. But Yahoo, which despite many recent departures of key people still has many sharp technical folks on board, may be on to something here.
The platform builds on SearchMonkey, announced in February, which allowed Web site owners to customize Yahoo search result listings on their sites. BOSS goes much further in access to Yahoo’s technology, and further than any other search engine has gone, as far as I know. Google and Microsoft offer ways for other Web sites to embed their search, but Yahoo apparently offers more query volume and doesn’t require branding. However, Yahoo isn’t providing access to Yahoo’s ranking algorithms or Web crawling policies. One example of how it’s getting used is at Me.dium.com, whose browser “social toolbar” tracks people’s Web travels so they can share their browsing with friends and colleagues. Tonight, it’s introducing a very early “alpha” version of Me.dium Social Search (pictured above), using BOSS to display Web sites from both Yahoo’s search results and from Me.dium’s own results based on what sites other people are browsing in real time. “It lets us focus on our innovation and our special sauce while giving us access to this incredible search infrastructure,” says David Mandell, Me.dium’s co-founder and “marketing maniac.” “They are really opening up the whole innovation door.”
The semantic search engine Hakia will be using BOSS for Yahoo’s index, which will give it more sites to index using its own semantic indexing technology, which extracts actual meaning from sentences, not just keywords and link structure. “We’re using Yahoo resources to accelerate our own indexing system,” says CEO Riza Berkan. “It makes our life easier.”
Having available the equivalent lof some $300 million in human and capital investment in search technologies and server infrastructure also could spur the creation of more new search startups, just as Amazon.com’s on-demand storage and computing services have helped many Web startups get going faster and cheaper. Christopher Manning, associate professor of computer science and linguistics at Stanford University, says BOSS could provide the means for students who could never afford the servers needed to crawl the Web to apply their own algorithms to new kinds of search services. “Most of the time it’s smart, creative students who drive innovation,” he says. Some analysts I talked to—and, full disclosure, they and the two partners were provided by Yahoo because the announcement was embargoed until now—sounded enthusiastic about BOSS. “A lot of developers are going to look at this as a cool opportunity and potentially a business opportunity,” says Barry Parr at Jupiter Research. “It’s pretty exciting to take this large and proprietary database and really open it up to developers.”
Sue Feldman at IDC thinks it could indeed be disruptive, because people already are essentially searching at far more than just Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft and appear ready and able to branch out beyond the big guys. In fact, she says two-thirds of searches already happen at specialized (but often large) sites such as eBay, Amazon, and Monster. “We’re roughly at the same spot in search as TV broadcasting in the ’50s,” when most people assumed the three networks would always dominate, she says. “Look at how many TV networks we’ve got now.”
That said, there are some limitations and obstacles. For one, it’s not yet clear how useful Yahoo’s database will be. Parr notes that the data may not be configured in a way to allow very specialized services. Also, I’m doubtful large companies—such as, say, Sony, which Yahoo mentioned hypothetically—will want Yahoo ads to be running uncontrolled on their sites.
Not least, this could be at least as disruptive to Yahoo as to Google, whose brand and technology are still gaining ground, if anything. Raghavan acknowledges this, but says it’s going to happen anyway, so Yahoo might as well try to lead it.
Indeed, like any contender in a market dominated by one player, Yahoo has little to lose by taking chances. And it could stand to gain a lot. It just might take awhile. As I’ve said recently, pressure from shareholders, like Carl Icahn, and from Microsoft may not give Yahoo much time as a fully independent player to carry out its big ideas.