Yahoo! Answers, Social Search and Local

Barry Schwartz at the SEW Blog posts about Yahoo! Answers "creeping into search results" ("best dog for apartment"). Similar to MyWeb, this is another example of differentiating search results with human-edited content. However, given some of the initiatives announced at Google's Press Day (and Microsoft's QnA) this strategy doesn't look to be as different going forward as it once was. Well executed, it still has the capacity to differentiate and be extremely valuable to users. Thus the battleground now moves from novel concept to actual execution.

Most local knowledge and advice remain in people's heads and not yet in the database. Social networks are starting to cull some of that information from users, however getting meaningful amounts of that content online and then organizing and presenting that for easy and quick discovery via search is another challenge. Yahoo! has been working on that problem in one way or another for several years.

There's a fair amount of hypothetical overlap between the use cases of Yahoo! Answers and Yahoo! Local. For example, here's a general search result for "best pediatrician SF" on Yahoo! It delivers local results at the top and impressively two of those listings are rated (the number of reviews, however, is limited). But "best pediatrician SF" is equally a query that could potentially be conducted on Answers.

Compare the Yahoo! results to those from Google. Interestingly, the top two results on Google are from Berkeley Parents Network (a mom-driven local social network). This result is the same one finds on Yahoo! Answers (from the Web), given that there wasn't any responsive content to that query on Answers. The point I’m trying to make is that Local and Answers will overlap in certain areas. Yahoo! is seeking to have several “entry points” for user-generated content and then manage and distribute it across the network.

In my “pediatricians” example, Google and Yahoo! are both trying to deliver content that helps users make decisions between physicians. Google is doing it "passively" in this case with PageRank. (It's new Co-op based Health vertical is, ironically, not as helpful at this point.) Yahoo! is trying to provide structured content from people that helps users more quickly get to a meaningful result.

Yahoo! Answers has been appearing on the city-level pages on Yahoo! Local for some time (see the middle of the page). Personal/community "MyWeb results" appear at or near the top of web search results for users signed in to Yahoo!. How Yahoo! integrates or blends Answers, MyWeb and Local will be important, challenging and interesting to watch. It's either going to be about dedicating organic real estate (layers of specialized results) or guessing at user intent, which is challenging, and then serving selected results accordingly.

Ironically, as Yahoo! search and Google and MSN for that matter get better one consequence could be less direct usage of search verticals (even as search is “verticalizing”). I suppose that might “rationalize” the relationship between the engines’ verticals and their main results – sending users who wanted more information to the vertical (Local, Shopping, etc.) and answering the questions of those who just wanted quick information directly on the SERPs. Most local queries come through the “front door” of search engines anyway; and offering Answers or community content in SERPs represents a potentially better user experience.

Managing the relationships of all these content areas, not to mention their potential impact on paid search inventory is an unanswered question. I believe that Yahoo!’s strategy is right; the challenge as I said is the execution.

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