For some time I’ve been trying to articulate, in a succinct fashion, what separates Yahoo and Google in terms of their approach to search, media, and ultimately culture. It came up today as I was writing, and damned if I got stuck. So in the spirit of other Friday sketches, I’m going to write out loud here on Searchblog, and depend on your forbearance and insights to get through the draught.
So let’s consider a search for the one-word term “usher,” and further, let’s presume the person typing that search in really does want to know about the (currently) popular singer Usher.
Now on Google, usher brings you a pretty predictable set of results. Because Usher, the singer, is quite popular at the moment and therefore much in the news, Google incorporates some of its Google News results into its SERPs, you can see from the link or picture that there are two in this particular example. On the right are tons of AdWords related to Usher – clearly there are plenty of vendors who stand to make a buck or two off the man, and they’ve found Google a good way to monetize the term. The majority of the page, however, is given over to listing the top ten Google results for “usher.”
Now the first three results, starting with “UsherWorld” – are clearly relevant to the keyword entered, again assuming that we are looking for information about the singer. The rest of the first page of results mixes in the Fall of The House of Usher and the Usher syndrome, which clearly shows some kind of diversification algorithm at work behind Google’s curtains – if the engine picked purely on popularity and links, the first few hundred, if not thousand, results would most likely be about the singer.
But in terms of exploiting our intention behind the search term “usher”, that’s as far as Google goes. All in all, very little overt editorial guidance. You’re directed to Usher’s website, and that’s that.
In contrast, let’s take a look at how Yahoo handles the same search. usher on Yahoo Search also gives UsherWorld as the first organic result, but the similarities end there. The first thing you see below the search box is Yahoo’s “also try:” feature – asking if you, the searcher, might be looking for a more refined version of the usher search – perhaps you’re looking for lyrics to a particular song (“usher lyrics” or “usher my boo lyrics”), or for pictures of usher (“usher pictures”), or for more information on the star’s relationship to Alicia Keys (“usher alicia keys”). This feature is driven by Yahoo’s editorial decision to watch what its users are searching for and connect the patterns it sees. Behind the curtain, Yahoo makes lists of related searches, then surfaces the most relevant ones. According to conversations I’ve had with members of Yahoo’s search team, the “also try” feature is a huge hit with Yahoo users.
Below “also try” are two blue-backgrounded sponsor results, right at the top (there are also plenty of paid links to the right, as there are with Google). This reflects Yahoo’s more aggressive approach to commercialization throughout its site. In all my discussions with Yahoo executives, I’ve noticed a distinct lack of shame when it comes to commerce: integrating commerce directly into the search process is seen more as a benefit than a detriment (this may have gone too far with the practice of paid inclusion, but a sophisticated discussion of that topic can be left to another day). The premise held is that search advertising is in fact relevant and even helpful to a searcher (a premise that, to be fair, is also echoed at Google, but in an almost apologetic fashion*.)
So a distinction between Yahoo and Google can be seen in the listing of those two sponsored results right up at the top of Yahoo’s page. This occurs in more searches on Yahoo than it does on Google, but it does happen at Google: look at this search for digital cameras or American Blinds, for example. In court transcripts in the American Blind case, Google’s lawyers assert that the practice of putting paid search results at the top, which many claim is confusing to users, has ceased at Google, but it clearly persists, if in more limited fashion.
Continuing on with Yahoo’s results, we next see what I believe is the most vital distinction between how Yahoo and Google handle the intent of their users: the search shortcut. The shortcut (what Jeff Weiner, head of search at Yahoo calls “iY” – short for “inside Yahoo”) is an attempt by the company to bring all of Yahoo’s most pertinent information about Usher into one place at one time, so as to quickly allow the searcher to declare and execute their intent. In four or so lines, the iY result offers the Usher artist page on Launch (Yahoo’s music service), photos and videos of the artist (also on Launch), and the ability to buy the artist’s CDs (on Yahoo Shopping). Yahoo News results are incorporated as well. The entire shortcut is flagged by a small red “Y!” so the searcher is tipped off that this particular result comes from Yahoo’s own content, rather than the web. (Whether anyone really notices that – or cares – is debatable).
Lastly come the organic results. It’s interesting to note that with Yahoo there is far less diversity in the first ten results – the House of Usher is nowhere to be found.
With iY, Yahoo makes no pretense of objectivity – it is clearly steering searchers toward its own services, which it believes can satisfy the intent of the search. In effect, Yahoo is saying “You’re looking for stuff on Usher? We got stuff on Usher, and it’s good stuff. Try ours, we think it’ll be worth your time.”
Apparent in that statement lies all you need to know about the difference between Google and Yahoo. Yahoo is a natural media company – the company is willing to have overt editorial and commercial agendas, and to let humans intervene in search results so as to create media which supports those agendas. Google, on the other hand, is repelled by the idea of becoming a content- or editorially-driven company. While both companies can ostensibly lay claim to the mission of “organizing the world’s information and making it accessible” (though only Google actually claims that line as its mission), they approach the task with vastly different stances. Google sees the problem as one that can be solved mainly through technology – clever algorithms and sheer computational horsepower will prevail. Humans enter the search picture only when algorithms fail – as was the case with the “I Love Jews” snafu mentioned earlier.
But Yahoo has always viewed the problem as one where human beings, with all their biases and brilliance, are integral to the solution. It’s humans, backed by technology, who drive the “also try” results at the top of the page (the process has been automated, but it is classic architecture of participation stuff: “here’s what other human beings find useful related to your search”). It’s humans, backed by technology, who push Yahoo’s internal content and commerce sites to the fore in the iY results. DNA has much to do with it: Yahoo started as an entirely subjective collection of links (Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web), and the first few years at Yahoo were dominated by its human edited directory. Humans first, technology second.
Google, on the other hand, started as an extremely clever algorithm which solved an intractable and recursive mathematical problem. Technology first, humans second. Over the past four years, Google has evolved on this front – if you asked anyone there in 2002 whether it was a media or technology company, the answer was always “technology.” Ask now, and it depends on who you ask. But the furthest even the most media-savvy person within Google will go is to say “we’re a media-driven technology company.” At Yahoo, everyone there understand they are in the media business, from Terry Semel down.
As both companies move forward with new features and services, I expect this distinction will surface in any number of interesting and important ways. Both approaches have their merit, both have and will continue to succeed. But I expect some tension over the next few years, in particular with regard to content. With the recent announcement regarding Google Print and rumblings from around the web about further forays into content, Google is clearly in the process of declaring its position relative to the content industry, and from what I can tell it is this: We will become your distribution sugar daddy. We’ll be Switzerland – allow us to index your content, and when people find it through us, we’ll enable you to sell it. This approach became more apparent with the discussion and disclosure of a recent patent in Larry Page’s name that creates a system by which media is discovered and then paid for.
In such a system, one can imagine that Google has cut deals with any number of content owners and somehow incorporated that content into its index. When you search for something, let’s say “usher,” the actual content that Usher has created will come up in the results, and thanks to the distribution deals Google has cut, you can buy that content right there on the spot. Everyone gets paid!
But putting yourself into the position of media middle man is a perilous gambit – in particular if your corporate DNA eschews the almighty dollar as an arbiter of which content might rise to the top of the heap for a particular search. Playing middle man means that in the context of someone looking for a movie, Google will determine the most relevant result for terms like “slapstick comedy” or “romantic musical” or “jackie chan film.” For music, it means Google will determine what comes first for “usher,” but it also means it will have to determine what should come first when someone is looking for “hip hop.” Who gets to be first in such a system? Who gets the traffic, the business, the profits? How do you determine, of all the possibilities, who wins and who loses?
In the physical world, the answer is clear: whoever pays the most gets the positioning, whether it’s on the supermarket shelf or the bin-end of a record store. Should Yahoo also become a super distributor of media content, it’s clear to me that that’s the route they will take – they’ll figure out some way to index and distribute media content that is moderated by traditional market forces.
But Google, more likely than not, will attempt to come up with a clever technological solution that attempts to determine the most “objective”answer for any given term, be it “romantic comedy” or “hip hop.” Perhaps the ranking will be based on some mix of PageRank, download statistics, and Lord knows what else, but one thing will be certain: Google will never tell anyone how they came to the results they serve up. Which creates something of a Catch-22 when it comes to monetization. Will Hollywood really be willing to trust Google to distribute and sell their content absent the commercial world’s true ranking methodology: cold, hard cash?
I for one can’t wait to find out.
*But let us not forget that famous line in Page and Brin’s famous and oft-cited academic paper describing Google for the first time:
“For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is “The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention”, a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web [Page, 98]. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media [Bagdikian 83], we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.”