HolidayBuyer's Guide

Search sites answer calls for visual, community results

Yahoo, Google and Snap.com are using new technologies to yield more dynamic answers to search queries.

For information seekers, the days of culling Web search pages, 10 machine-generated hyperlinks at a time, may be numbered.

On Monday, Yahoo takes the next step to realize its vision of combining human advice with machine automation to offer more relevant ways of searching the Web.

It is using the millions of human suggestions from its recently introduced Yahoo Answers to complement the mathematically organized features of its core search system.

"It's the right time now to augment Web search results with some human touch," said Tim Mayer, Yahoo's product manager for Web search. "We are making search better by allowing users to tap into the collective knowledge of other people."

Meanwhile, Web search inventor Bill Gross, who sold the system to Yahoo, is set to unveil a new version of his latest project. One of his Idealab companies, Snap.com, is aimed at broadband users and gives people visual snapshots of Web sites before they click.

These innovations in how to search for information on the Web aim to compete with the dominant search provider, Google, which analysts say still has a big lead in the current generation of Web search technology.

Google's dominance is pushing rivals to seek fundamentally new approaches to searching, and Google cannot sit still, either, analysts say.

For its part, Google last week began offering Google Co-op, an early effort at human-organized search to boost its algorithmic page-ranking system.

To begin with, Co-op is working with a very fixed set of experts, such as the Harvard Medical School or the Mayo Clinic in health and Fodor's and Lonely Planet in travel guides.

"Some questions need different formats and answers," said Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products.

Snap has the classic set of 10 links down the left side of its search results page, but each link a user selects is displayed in a half-size screenshot of the Web site's home page.

Thus, users can scroll down a page of links using visual cues instead of reading text. It is surfing by pictures, like flipping through television channels using a remote control. The user can skip over bad pages or broken links before they load.

"Look before you leap," Snap Chief Executive Tom McGovern said in an interview. "People who are more visually oriented will gravitate to this."

Google runs advertisements alongside search results and only gets paid when consumers click on the ads. Snap argues that it can take advertising a major step forward by charging only when consumers complete transactions.

But Snap also breaks potentially controversial ground in how the site blurs the distinction between sponsored search results and results returned by popular demand. By contrast, major search sites clearly fence off sponsored results.

Yahoo Answers, where people can ask and have other Yahoo users answer questions, has grown to store nearly 11 million answers related to technical matters or everyday life in more than 800 categories, the company said.

The service has more than 7.2 million users, Yahoo said, citing data from market research firm ComScore Networks.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company said it is now weaving Yahoo Answers, which the Internet media company introduced in December in trial mode, into its core Yahoo Search system. Yahoo Answers is designed to allow users to ask questions on the Web in plain language. "A lot of people find it difficult to formulate how to come up with the right query," Mayer said. "Yahoo Answers lets others answer that question."

"This is actually taking advantage of the enormous power of the Yahoo community," Gartner analyst Allen Weiner said. Yahoo has an audience of more than 400 million users across its network of sites.

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