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Commentary: Is your search engine experienced?

Yahoo's newly redesigned search interface at is the opening move in the new competitive arena for Web search--the user experience.

Commentary: Is your search engine experienced?
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
April 7, 2003, 2:15PM PT

By Paul Sonderegger, Principal Analyst

Yahoo's newly redesigned search interface at is the opening move in the new competitive arena for Web search--the user experience.

Yahoo changed its search functionality in a number of ways, adding search within a specific geographic area, search preferences and support for more than 30 languages. But the most significant upgrades affect the core searching process.

• Streamlined input page. Following Google's lead, Yahoo created a minimalist interface to its search engine. The page includes little more than a text box, six tabs and a search button.

• Cleaner, easier-to-read results pages. The new design eschews advertising banners, preferring text-based ads instead. In addition, it brings Web results above the fold by minimizing dividers between sections, eliminating wasted space at the top of the page, and reducing the font on category listings while keeping type legible.

Just the beginning
Google set the bar for simple, easy-to-use Web search. Now that Yahoo has risen to the same level, the top four players--which include MSN and Overture Services--will add value by putting results in context. With the millions of searches these companies support every day, this is a huge challenge. But each has an option that plays to its strengths.

• Yahoo should use its directory to package and filter results. The company has started moving in this direction by presenting hot news stories based on keywords like "Iraq," in addition to Web pages. Yahoo can take this further by setting up editorial teams to create coherent presentations of handpicked content that

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incorporate the top directory listings, Yahoo assets and Web sites. Then each of these components could act as a filter to show the user results that are "more like this."

• Google should dynamically cluster its high-quality results. Google must focus on using its technology advantage to the fullest. The company should experiment with clustering engines like Viv?simo that group search results on the fly based on their similarity. These groupings help users narrow their searches when initial results run to the tens of thousands.

• Overture should optimize for specialized searches. By focusing on distinct communities of users, Overture should exploit tools that Google has downplayed, such as taxonomies and ontologies. This approach might even restore the firm to its former position at America Online. But the company must zero in on topics that have broad appeal but limited scope--like personal health--and partner with builders of ontologies and taxonomies like Language and Computing, with its ontology of 1.5 million medical terms.

• MSN should research users to support the richer search scenario. The task of searching is one that happens on the path to a larger goal like writing a term paper or refinancing a mortgage. Only MSN has the deep pockets and culture of usability to fund first-person research into why people search and what they do with what they find. As MSN decides where to invest to beef up its search, it should factor in the cost of researching the thousands of user intentions behind the top 100 terms entered into its engine.

© 2003, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.