You are the query: Yahoo's bold quest to reinvent search

Yahoo hasn't been known for search since Google took that crown long ago. Can CEO Marissa Mayer turn the company into a player again? She's trying.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is trying to revitalize the company's search experience. Johannes Eisele/Getty
When Yahoo launched its home page redesign in February -- its first such overhaul in the Marissa Mayer era -- the company's chief executive sent out a jovial tweet:

Yet Mayer would be forgiven if, even before she tapped the "tweet" button, she was already restless for the next iteration of the site. While Yahoo's redesigned home page functions just fine (and still commands huge traffic), it's not as ambitious as one of Mayer's original visions for the site. And what she first had in mind hints at what Mayer could eventually try to build: a version of search that is part Facebook and part Google, a streamlined, personalized experience for each individual user.

Mayer has said that much publicly before: that the key to attracting people and advertisers to Yahoo's platforms, whether that's its home page or e-mail service, is emphasizing personalization. But where does that fit into search? During an interview in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mayer explained the relationship: She believes personalization doesn't replace traditional search, but instead "becomes a critical part of search."

"Personalization becomes a critical part of search."
--Marissa Mayer, January 2013
The CEO, of course, is in the midst of trying to turn around the lumbering giant that is Yahoo, which, for all its woes, is still an almost $5 billion company in annual sales. She's made some splashy moves, like buying Tumblr for $1.1 billion, along with a slew of other smaller acquisitions, including one announced on Monday -- a natural language software company called SkyPhrase, which should no doubt play into the company's search efforts. Mayer has also snagged big-named talent like David Pogue and Katie Couric, all of which makes the guessing game about just what her strategy really is that much more intriguing.

From conversations with former employees, partners, analysts, and competitors, to LinkedIn searches and sifting through Mayer's other public comments, we've tried to home in on that elusive strategy, at least in terms of the company's hush-hush plans to revamp search. And CNET has uncovered some scattered clues, including tantalizing details about a stealthy project in the works, and insight into one alternative redesign idea the company had for

The "home feed" mockups

Yahoo's home page has a long way to go before it gets to where Mayer wants it to be. Her tweet on the day of the launch touted the Facebook-like features of a newsfeed and personalization for each user. The site does have a few social elements: a Twitter widget, trending topics, and an infinitely scrolling list of news stories.

Yes, the list of articles on Yahoo's home page could, in the general sense, be considered a "newsfeed" -- in that it is a feed. Full of news. But no one would mistake it for Facebook's News Feed, populated by relevant updates and content from friends. "None of us, regardless of how you feel about Yahoo, would look at what I'm looking at right now [on the home page] and say, 'Wow, this is personalized for me,'" said one former Yahoo executive.

In fact, early on in the process, Mayer was really after something closer to Facebook's stream, according to the former executive, who had knowledge of the redesign plans. The CEO wanted to build a Facebook-like "home feed," where users would find a stream of relevant content from brands and properties across the Web, including Yahoo's own products. In one discarded design, the content from all of Yahoo's properties, like Sports, Finance, or Shopping, were fed directly into the stream, instead of having the properties listed along the left edge of the page. Every bit of content would be experienced right from the home page -- with articles popping up in boxes layered on top of the home page, like what happens when you click on a Facebook photo.

The team mocked up designs, but the "hyper-minimalist" layout was soon nixed because it would have cost too much in lost ad dollars, leaving "hundreds of millions of dollars" a year on the table, said the former executive. To be fair, design is fluid at the beginning of any major project -- ideas are scaled back, beefed up, or scrapped all the time. (Here are some otherdesigns, which were user tested but didn't make the final cut.) So just because the Facebook-like design was tossed then, the former executive cautioned, that doesn't mean the company won't revisit it.

Yahoo declined to comment for this story.

Rewind further to about a month before the home page relaunch. During that same Davos interview, Mayer spoke publicly for the first time about what she called the "interest graph" -- something a few steps beyond Facebook's social graph, and aims to connect people based on shared interests, and not just who they know or where they went to school. Instead of a query in which you type a set of words into a search bar, "In the future, you become the query," she posited.

Was the "home feed" design, as the source called it, an early manifestation of the interest graph? Perhaps. During the interview, she explained the concept: "The Internet is so vast that you can't just categorize it anymore. But could we provide a list of information? A feed, if you will?" she continued. "The Web, that's ordered for you."

Mayer got her start at Google, but it's unlikely that she's looking to go head-to-head against her former company. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A stealthy project

During Yahoo's most recent earnings conference call in September, Mayer beat the search drum loudly.

"This is absolutely an area of investment for Yahoo going forward," she said.

Laurie Mann, Yahoo's senior vice president of search, has echoed the sentiment. "We've got some really cool things in the pipeline, which we'll be announcing and rolling out over the coming months," Mann told Bloomberg in May. Mayer has also said that many of the strides in personalization will be made in the next three to five years.

Gaining pre-eminence in search would of course be a return to Yahoo's glory years, during the early Internet when Yahoo helped pioneer the category, competing against the likes of Infoseek and Lycos. To regain major relevance in search would mean to try to gobble up some of the share that Google has owned without much dispute, but -- as juicy as that plot line would be -- Mayer is not likely trying to compete head-to-head with her old company by building a core Web crawler.

That wouldn't be a smart play either. In October, Yahoo's search share fell to 11.1 percent, according to ComScore. And it's been falling at least 0.1 percent over the last three months, while Google's share has held steady at 66.9 percent over that time period.

Mayer also noted on the conference call that Yahoo's search teams executed more than 100 "search experiments," including enhanced browsers and new toolbars, to "refine and enhance the experience for our users and our advertisers," which fits more into the vein of personalization.

So what is Yahoo building? To wit, the company is working on a new "personalization platform," according to the LinkedIn profile of one Yahoo senior director. Cris Luiz Pierry, the director who headed up Yahoo's now-shuttered Flipboard clone Livestand, writes that he is heading up a "stealth project," and that he is "building the best content discovery and recommendation engine on the Web, across all of our regions." Pierry also has an in-the-weeds search background, with experience in core Web search, ranking algorithms, and e-commerce software -- which may come in handy when dealing with monetization. Pierry did not respond to messages sent on LinkedIn or Yahoo Messenger.

Cris Luiz Pierry says he's the senior director of both a "stealth project" and "personalization platform" at Yahoo. Screenshots by CNET

Of course, a large tech company can have a hundred stealth projects going on at once. But Pierry's background makes him a good candidate to work on Mayer's vision of an interest graph.

Whether or not that's the case, Yahoo's version of search, Mayer has said, will be differentiated by user interface flourishes, pulling together all of the company's different products. The company is focusing on "structured search" to try to make search results sizzle -- that is, results that usually come from brand and content partners, and are displayed with more pizzazz and information. (A general example is searching for, say, "flight to London," and having a rate table or calendar pop up for trip dates.)

That search experience would likely be layered on top of another company's Web crawler, like Microsoft's Bing, which took over those operations for Yahoo in 2010, as part of a 10-year deal. (More on that later.) Beginning in 2008, Yahoo operated a service called SearchMonkey that helped third parties customize their sites for Yahoo's structured search results, but discontinued the developer tool soon after the partnership with Bing was announced.

Multiple developer partners involved with Yahoo Small Business -- which hosts and provides marketing tools to Web-based storefronts -- have indicated to CNET (some with non-denial denials) that something is going on with Yahoo's search efforts, though they declined to say more, citing nondisclosure agreements. "What I can say is Yahoo works on a lot of products," said one of the partners, when asked about a new search product. "And you'll see them sooner rather than later."

Still, there may be a snag in the plan. In March, Yahoo acquired personalization startup Jybe. The biggest boon of the buyout was a talent haul that returned five former Yahoo engineers to the company. Earlier this month, though, Jybe co-founder Tim Converse, who had been the science lead for the personalization group at Yahoo, was poached by eBay, just months after he rejoined the company. Converse declined to comment for this story.

An example of structured search. Click to expand Screenshot by CNET

Just because Yahoo isn't trying to compete directly with Google's core business, it doesn't mean Mayer isn't above attempting to siphon talent from her old stomping grounds. The company has been actively trying to poach senior people away from Google. That includes an attempt at Johanna Wright, vice president of Android search and head of Google Now -- the company's pre-eminent personalization search tool, though Wright spurned the offer. (Business Insider previously reported this, and CNET has independently confirmed it.) In September, Yahoo did tap Android engineering manager Jean-Baptiste Queru. Neither person responded to requests for interviews, sent via LinkedIn.

Another set of anecdotal hints to consider: As of this writing, Yahoo has more than a dozen job postings on its corporate site for search-related positions, from front-end developers to search architects to senior product managers, including a few specifically focusing on monetization. Many of the postings just went up in October.

Of course, a few open positions -- which are all for jobs located at the company's Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters -- aren't a definitive indication that Yahoo is beefing up its search team. After all, a proper search operation takes hundreds of people. But it can help us glean some of what Yahoo is trying to do.

"We firmly believe that the Search Product of tomorrow will not be anything alike [sic] the product that we are used to today," says the job description for the search architect. The posting also name-checks Search Direct, Yahoo's version of Google Instant, as the "first step" in changing the landscape of search. After testing out a few queries on Yahoo's home page, the feature, which looks up queries without requiring the user to hit "search," looks to be dormant.

The company also wants to experiment with ad formats. "Our vision is that plan [sic] vanilla text ads belong to the past," says the job description for the search monetization manager.

It also sounds like the search initiative will be a priority for the company, with the new senior employees getting at least some unilateral power over other departments. For example, the listing for the search monetization manager goes on to say that the person in that position will "have access to all teams at Yahoo!, working with Engineering, Sales, Design, Analytics, Marketing, Finance and Legal."

Job listings on Yahoo's corporate Web site Screenshot by CNET

What about Bing?

There's one other piece of the puzzle: Microsoft. The "Powered by Bing" branding at the bottom of each Yahoo search results page is probably like a bad tattoo the company would like to take back.

Two years before Mayer took the reins at Yahoo, then-CEO Carol Bartz set forth a 10-year search partnership between Yahoo and Microsoft, wherein Yahoo would use Bing's technology to perform nitty-gritty Web crawler functions. That way, the thinking went, Yahoo could shed the costs of search engineering by outsourcing that job to Redmond, while still determining how search results showed up on a user's screen. Under the deal, Yahoo remains in charge of search within its products.

Mayer has been vocal about her dissatisfaction with the deal. The partnership is set to expire in 2020, but there are loopholes that could allow each of the companies to terminate it early. One way for Yahoo to part ways would be to prove that the deal isn't living up to specific financial expectations. Also, after February 2015 -- halfway through the deal -- Yahoo can walk away if the company isn't making enough money per search to keep it competitive with Google, according to the terms of the deal. In October at a press briefing in Redmond, Microsoft's advertising head, Rik van der Kooi, said he'd like the partnership to last "longer than 10 years."

Former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz
Mayer inherited a 10-year search partnership between Yahoo and Microsoft, put into place by Yahoo then-CEO Carol Bartz, pictured here. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Also in October, Microsoft won a court battle on the topic, which barred Yahoo from delaying the rollout of Bing search results in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Yahoo had wanted to hold off until Microsoft -- whose CEO, Steve Ballmer, announced his resignation in August -- appoints a new leader.

What this all means is, if Yahoo can get out of the deal like it wants to, the company would be without basic search capabilities, since a lot of Yahoo's search engineering talent went to Microsoft with the Yahoo-Bing deal.

That Yahoo is making a play in structured search could mean that something is afoot. One former engineer at Yahoo said one of the reasons the company shut down SearchMonkey was because Bing had a similar program.

Some theories: The company could be planning a Bing exit strategy for 2015 or earlier, and look to partner with another Web crawler, aka Google. Some reports have said Mayer has been cozying up to her former company on that front. Or Yahoo could be rebuilding its own core search capabilities, though that's the unlikeliest of scenarios because that would be a nightmare for the company's margins. Or Yahoo could even be beefing up its team just enough to gain more authority within the Bing partnership, in case it wanted to advise Bing on what to do on the back end.

But for Yahoo really to build something of consequence in search and personalization, it's got a lot of hurdles to overcome. "Yahoo has not been able to figure out how to take their data and combine it with third-party data to create something meaningful," said Sameet Sinha, a senior analyst at B. Riley and Co.

Not to mention the fact that Yahoo doesn't have its own operating system -- on mobile or desktop -- to jump-start the adoption of any search tool.

But Mayer helped make Google, the company that took search -- a category a handful of other companies were already established in -- friendlier to the masses. Rightly or wrongly, Mayer's bet is that Yahoo has got the user interface chops to create an experience that rivals that of anyone else, including her old company. It's nothing personal. Or, well, yes it is.

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