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Yahoo open search: Good for users, but great for Yahoo

Structured search results will be easier to read. They'll also give search engines a scary advantage over publishers.

At the SMX West conference today, Yahoo is making a big deal of its new open search initiative. This program, not yet live, will allow site publishers to influence the way the Yahoo search engine displays results for their sites.

The idea is to get structured data into search results. For example, if you search for product, and one of the results is a CNET review, open search will know that CNET reviews contain numerical ratings and will display that number in an easy-to-read format. Other data that could make it into search results include addresses, phone numbers, photos, related stories, or basically anything the publisher wants to display to people who see their results on Yahoo search.

This is no ordinary search hit.

The service does not, however, let publishers change the ranking of search results themselves.

It's a great idea. Search engines do not do a universally good job of parsing search, and this initiative lets publishers regain some control over how their content is presented without allowing them to actually muck with search result ordering.

On the other hand, considering the "open" moniker Yahoo has put on the project, the company is being extremely cagey with the details of how it will actually work. I talked with Amit Kumar, Yahoo Search director of product management, who said that there is as of yet no open spec published for site managers to write to. Nor would he say if Yahoo will support Microformats for this platform--although the company has been using this open standard in some experiments (Yahoo Local, Yahoo Tech and Yahoo Movies UK).

Also, it's not totally clear how users will get exposed to the "open"-powered results for all but the largest of sites. Big sites like Yelp and The New York Times will be blessed by Yahoo from the get-go, and users will see structured results instead of the straight text they do now, when the product launches. But newer and smaller sites will see their search results displayed in the old-fashioned way until either users vote the structured results into rotation or Yahoo manually approves their formats.

There's more at play here than simply better search results (although that's no small deal). As Google tried to do with Google Base, getting site publishers to submit structured data to a search engine gives the engines enormous new ammunition they can use to consolidate data, create new mashups of it, and display ever-more-targeted advertising. Publishers really can't say no to this feature, since it will improve the display of their search results, but there may be a cost in the long run: why will Web users need to visit a site's home page if a search site like Yahoo is able to parse and display its key content itself?