Though a pioneer in search, indexing and email, Yahoo seemed to lose ground in all, as Google and Microsoft-led Hotmail posed challenges. Last year, the portal giant forged a partnership with Microsoft’s search engine Bing — apart from resisting a takeover bid by the software leader — and I thought Yahoo had its back to the wall.
Now, after meeting three key executives of Yahoo, I am having second thoughts. Things need not be what they seem.
Before Bing came along, I had met Dr Prabhakar Raghavan, one of its technology gurus, who underlined a simple fact — that Google may lead search ads, but Yahoo has always had the upper hand in the display/banner ad business, with strong technologies.
But what made me sit up was a meeting with Shashi Seth, a Kanpurwallah who now is senior vice-president for search products at Yahoo’s California headquarters.
“Search has to change from the pull to push model,” he declares. In simple terms, both Google and Bing help you zero in on the right thing that you are looking for. But, if you are among the more common users, if, instead of throwing up search ads, relevant content is thrown up, the page that comes out looks different. This is where Yahoo tries to score.
If, for instance, you are looking for “cricket” the insect, you may end up scouring Bing or Google, but if it is India’s popular sport you are looking for, Yahoo search has an interface in which partner Bing’s results show up but only below stuff thrown up by Yahoo on the game. Picture it like Google News meets search.
As a result, Yahoo can drive traffic to its own sites or partner sites. This is where Yahoo is “pushing” content to you instead of your “pulling” it. Accompanying this is the headstart Yahoo has had as a media content site aggregator. Seth calls it the “front-end search.”
I would also talk of another front-end — the device that you operate from.
While it has content partnerships, for the user, the front-end is increasingly the mobile handset, or looking ahead, the tablet computer, especially if you are on the move. With 3G connections and tablets looming, geographically relevant content for mobile users is critical.
Arun Tadanki, Yahoo’s India managing director, says India’s mobile Internet users now are 18 million, and this is going to double every year for the next three or four years. So, Yahoo has forged partnerships with handset companies such as Nokia and half-a-dozen Indian manufacturers. This means Yahoo’s Internet messenger, mail and other services can be driven from the handset end.
“The whole tablet thing can be a game changer,” Tadanki says. I would tend to agree. But the competition is not sleeping. Last week, Google launched an India-specific music site (
) that selectively aggregates Bollywood music sites using its search technologies. And that looks a lot like what Yahoo is up to. The game is wide open, and don’t write off anyone in a hurry.