New Yahoo iPhone app lets you doodle your search

Yahoo's two new search apps for iPhone form a yin and yang of fun and classic search.

Yahoo Sketch-a-Search
Yahoo's Sketch-a-Search isn't just gloss. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

If you're Yahoo, looking at a landscape where Google Search and Microsoft's Bing app pretty much have search sewn up, how do you get noticed? You try something a little eccentric.

The free Yahoo Sketch-a-Search app does what the name implies, letting your fingertip inscribe a shape on the map that will become your searching area. Maybe you want to avoid a certain area, or search for businesses in a wider pattern. Pressing the green button on the graphically rich interface engages the map, and you're free to doodle away on the native Google map. The location-aware app preloads your map based on your current location, but you can easily switch to a different city.

Searches are limited to restaurants, coffee shops, and some hotels for the moment, but Yahoo plans to expand to other local categories, like gyms, gas stations, pet stores, retail shops, and even real estate, like apartments. You can filter search results by star rating and restaurant category--we expect to see this expand when the categories grow.

Just for fun, we tried defining a search area in the shape of stars and letters of the alphabet. The app's algorithms failed to identify any searches in the area. Although that's a ding in our eyes, it's not very realistic that anyone will actually need to seek Moroccan eateries in an area shaped like the letter J. Right now, Sketch-a-Search covers only U.S. cities, but Yahoo plans to include the UK, Canada, and parts of Asia in future.

Classic Yahoo search app

Doodling a search area is a fun exercise, but it's hardly precise. In addition to Sketch-a-Search, Yahoo also released a much more traditional free search app, Yahoo Search. It includes the usual features of a search bar and access to Yahoo's full search database, but it adds a few interesting features. There's Vlingo-powered voice search, and a neat combined map and list view that shows search results on the same page as the map results (it's usually just one or the other. Another interesting feature pulls in search results from Yelp, Wikipedia, Amazon, and other similar sites.

While there are some admirable features in both apps, we'd rather see sketching combined in the greater Yahoo search app. While fun, Sketch-a-Search isn't an app we foresee using with more regularity than a traditional search.

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