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Yahoo tries a new look

The Net giant is seeking user comments on the beta version of a redesign of its wildly used signature site.

Yahoo (YHOO) is getting ready for a face-lift.

The company on Friday posted a beta version of a redesigned front door that highlights its services and makes more room for daily news. Yahoo is soliciting comments for the next week or so before deciding what to implement on a permanent basis.

"This version presents a full range of Yahoo services and puts timely information on the front page," Yahoo spokeswoman Diane Hunt said. "The bottom line is that the beta provides a central, full-service hub for everything the user could want on the front page."

Changes beyond the front door include moving the search box to the bottom from the top of the category pages and highlighting the categories "News & Events," "Community," and "Shopping" near the top of those pages. More changes are forthcoming toward the end of the week, according to executive producer Tim Brady, including more promotional areas for Yahoo services.

"One of the things going on in our site is that so many things are going on that our users sometimes say they can't find things," said Brady. "We're trying to create an interface that protects the purity of a directory while making it easier for users to find out about things going on on Yahoo."

It is the first redesign for Yahoo in a year.

The most noticeable addition to the Yahoo beta is the presence of a gray box, labeled "Today," on the right side of the page. The box features four hyperlinked news headlines and four links to Yahoo services. Yahoo now puts a news headline to the side of its masthead, though not consistently.

Although the current Yahoo front door features numerous links to services such as its email, paging, and personalized offerings, the beta elevates some of those services to the nameplate and also to the prominently placed gray box.

"The 'today' section is a good move, because it gives the site a kind of changing flavor," Jupiter Communications senior analyst Patrick Keane said. "Yahoo presently doesn't have much else new on the front page except for a banner ad or a new area. This allows them to promote more new content."

Keane also praised the beta's higher placement of text and services, citing tests in which users don't scroll down at all. "The impression has to be immediate, and it has to be at the top," he added.

The current Yahoo site has demonstrated remarkable success. The company's stock last week surpassed the milestone $100-per-share mark. By many accounts, it is the most visited site on the Web, and it has inspired numerous imitators. So if the site isn't broken, why fix it?

"It's not a radical change," Keane said. "There's more timeliness and a greater emphasis on services like personalization that give the site more stickiness and keep users coming back to the site. But it still looks like Yahoo."

The launch of Yahoo's beta version comes on the heels of a March 31 redesign of Snap Online, which is a service of NEWS.COM publisher CNET: The Computer Network.

Some analysts have noted that the various search engines and portal sites are looking more and more similar with each redesign. In one cosmetic example, Excite, Snap, and the Yahoo beta all use the same font.

"What a lot of this comes down to is that they're all running focus groups," Volpe Brown Whelan analyst Derek Brown said. "Theoretically, if you get a reasonable sample of mainstream consumers, you're going to get similar answers to the same questions. If the goal is to appeal to those mainstream consumers, it makes sense that the sites wind up looking similar."

Brady said Yahoo used focus groups to test its product, but noted the groups were called upon only to fine-tune finished products, not to design them.

When asked whether the portals were becoming more homogenous, Brady hedged.

"Certainly there are similar design elements," Brady acknowledged. "But the variety of properties we offer is quite different. On the other hand, the directory, which Yahoo pioneered, is still the central focus, and the other engines have really followed us in that respect."