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Keeping tabs on Google, Yahoo modifies home page

The onetime search champ continues its effort to recapture the crown, tweaking its main page with tabbed sections like those of its rival and adding other new features.

Yahoo altered its home page this weekend to showcase specialized search features, a bid to drive traffic to the new tools and recapture ground from rival Google.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based added tabs for searches related to Images, Yellow Pages and Products. These appear alongside a Web search tab, which is how the portal now labels its standard search field. The design change mirrors the file-folder look of competitors including

Though a slight change, it speaks volumes about the challenge Yahoo faces in educating visitors on the improvements it's made this year in search and in helping users cut through clutter. In 2003, Yahoo finalized its acquisitions of search technology company Inktomi and commercial listings provider Overture, two deals aimed at helping Yahoo replace partner Google with perfected in-house search technology and regain the title of search champ.

Aside from buyouts, Yahoo has introduced a raft of new tools in recent months, including features to search for and compare product data, narrow queries keyed to geographical locations and searches accessible in instant message chat windows.

The change also indicates that Yahoo may have learned that wooing audiences is as simple as placing features front and center.

"There's a fine line between spamming our users, saying here's a new search feature and here's another new search feature, and just exposing it to them. We decided to make it more prominent on the home page," said Ali Diab, director of product management for U.S. search.

Diab added that the alterations were the result of research and advice from consumers. "This is one thing among many that you will see in the next month, in terms of improvements in helping our users find what they're looking for," Diab said.

Yahoo makes minor tweaks to its network of sites all the time, but its home page is sacred territory. The changes had to pass muster with David Filo, who co-founded Yahoo in April 1995 with Jerry Yang, and who to this day oversees the design of Yahoo.com, Diab said. In fact, until last year, when Yahoo simplified its home page, the basic framework of the page had remained unchanged since the site's inaugural year.

The design changes reflect an internal mandate at the company to make search a prominent feature across the entire network, including Yahoo's personals, travel and real estate sections. The impetus is largely fueled by the shifting economics of search and its lucrative advertising component, pay-per-click sponsored listings. As a result of such listings, the search market is expected to be worth $2 billion in 2003 and has drawn the attention of numerous competitors, including software behemoth Microsoft. Microsoft's MSN is erecting its own search technology to compete with those from Google and Yahoo.

As part of the new changes, Yahoo is featuring areas of its search strategy that have been in development. The company recently introduced a new product-comparison search site, in a bid to compete with niche players such as Shopping.com and with Google, which unveiled a shopping site called Froogle.com in late 2001. Yahoo's shopping site includes innovations such as SmartSort, which lets people customize results by rating the importance of product features. While shopping for a digital camera, for example, users can use a sliding scale to prioritize camera size, resolution, optical zoom and brand.

Diab said that the sliding scale feature is one way Yahoo is looking to develop personalized search in other areas, such as news.

Many industry watchers expect Yahoo will replace Google's search technology with its own, given that it has acquired three equivalent Web crawlers in the last year, including Inktomi. For now, Yahoo's Web and Image search are still powered by Google. But Yahoo developed its own technology, with components of Inktomi, for its Products search, as well as for its Yellow Pages. Diab said the company also plans to enhance local or Yellow Pages searches in the coming months.