Twilight time for Yahoo search

Uncertainty is in the air at Search Engine Strategies 2009 in the wake of Yahoo's deal with Microsoft: what will Redmond keep, and what will it discard?

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Yahoo's lame-duck period as a search company is in full swing.

Following a Wednesday morning session on the SEO implications of duplicate content at Search Engine Strategies 2009, technical and marketing attendees crowded three deep around Google's Greg Grothaus and Microsoft's Sasi Parthasarathy, peppering them with questions about the best way to construct their Web sites. A smaller group, unable to get directly to Grothaus, clustered around the search expert seated directly to his left, Yahoo's Ivan Davtchev.

It must be a tough time to be a Yahoo search engineer. Following the company's decision two weeks ago to shutter its search business in a deal with Microsoft's Bing, Yahoo has gone from a respected--if smaller--player in the business of constructing search engines, to an awkward participant in conferences such as these, where Bing representatives like Parthasarathy answer audience questions about the future of Yahoo search technologies.

As Grothaus and Parthasarathy continued to field questions from all sides, Davtchev took a moment to reflect on the situation, noting that there is an awful lot that is still up in the air about Yahoo search. Right after the conclusion of the panel here at the San Jose Convention Center, Davtchev planned to get back on U.S. 101 and head a few miles north to Yahoo's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., for a series of meetings on how Microsoft and Yahoo will integrate each other's search technologies.

Bing is the trendy word in the search engine business right now, following Microsoft's overhaul of the former Live Search service earlier this year and the generally positive reviews--and traffic--that have followed. However, despite what CEO Carol Bartz has claimed, Yahoo has a rich history in the search field and although it gave up its lead to Google long ago, has continued to advance the field with work on technologies such as semantic search.

What will Microsoft keep, and what will it discard? It's not just a question of technology: the lives of search engineers such as Davtchev could be changed if Microsoft kills their project in favor of its own. The company has promised to hire several hundred engineers, but Yahoo has "way more than that" many people working on search, Davtchev said, and when the three major search players condense into two, somebody's going to get squeezed.

The industry knows this process is being currently debated, and confusion can reign. Fellow panelists Shari Thurow of Omni Marketing Interactive and Marty Weintraub of AimClear urged Parthasarathy to save Yahoo's Site Explorer "Site Explorer, to me, is one of the best tools to analyze content," Thurow said. Weintraub brought up a conversation on Twitter Wednesday started by Microsoft's Dare Obasanjo about Yahoo closing certain search APIs.

Parthasarathy, speaking on behalf of Yahoo, dismissed the API discussion as rumors, probably without knowing that they were started by a colleague. But the news about the closing of the Yahoo Term Extraction API was noticed on a public Yahoo message board for search professionals, rather than surfacing as unsourced Internet scuttlebutt.

Yahoo did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Term Extraction.

This kind of confusion is understandable in the early days of any significant merger. It might take years for the Microsoft-Yahoo search deal to wind its way through lawyers and regulators. Indeed, Davtchev said, "for the next year, it should be business as usual" for Yahoo Search.

While that might be true regarding the public face of Yahoo search, it's clear that a tectonic shift is taking place in the search industry. It's hard to imagine that should the deal pass government scrutiny, Yahoo will be back for Search Engine Strategies 2010.

Featured Video