Yahoo’s Shashi Seth on the Future of Search, Mobile & Structured Data

shashi-sethRegardless of whether Yahoo continues to see itself as a search company, it seems to have a clear strategy for the next few years that is coined in a catchy three-word mantra: “Answers, not links.”

Shashi Seth, a Google and eBay veteran who joined Yahoo in January 2010 as senior VP for search products, is responsible for leading and driving the next generation of search at the company.

In a phone interview, Seth revealed Yahoo’s search strategy, the importance of mobile search, and his views on structured data and measurement.

Yahoo’s Role in the Search Alliance

Under the partnership, Microsoft is in charge of indexing, crawling, and the relevance component of search, Seth said. Yahoo will work with Microsoft to be the dominant player in the 45 markets they represent, although that tends to be Google in most of the local competition.

Except for Korea, the Bing algorithm results are now 100 percent integrated into Yahoo. Algorithmic transition across Asia recently completed, with Korea scheduled to changeover in November.

Once migration is complete, engineers and product managers at Yahoo will focus on the next generation of search that will unveil in the next three- to five-year timeframe.

Yahoo’s next generation of search is defined as “answers, not links.” This means when users ask a question, instead of giving 10 blue links, the engine should be able to provide an exact answer for many of those questions.

While Seth didn’t provide exact numbers, he said there are “several hundreds of engineers across the globe” working on various aspects of search at Yahoo.

Globally, Yahoo has four centers of excellence in search and marketplace – one in Sunnyvale, California, with the rest in Asia – Taiwan, Bangalore (India), and Beijing (China).

To tap local engineering talent and local knowledge on product features and the competitive landscape, Seth said the centers are located as close to these cities as possible with each of them focus on a specific area. For instance, the Taiwan center specializes in vertical search from sports, celebrities, blogs, and forums, while engineers at the China center focus on mobile apps across Yahoo.

Mobile Search is Very Important to Yahoo

“We envision that mobile search will be the dominant form of search globally in the next five years (or less) and that web search will be a smaller component,” Seth said.

He added that mobile engineers based in Beijing are working on the next generation of search, and mobile plays a central role.

With the number of mobile queries growing between 5 to 7 percent month over month, Yahoo has been working on various products to meet the rising smartphone trend. The company has rolled out a global product for smartphones and is also building a product dedicated for tablets including apps to cater to niche vertical needs.

A key challenge is figuring out how to get distribution for Yahoo’s products. But Seth pointed out that “of all the major search engines, we are the only neutral party in mobile.”

As Yahoo isn’t an OS player or a device manufacturer in the mobile space, they work well with carriers and OEMs worldwide. The Internet firm currently has more than 100 relationships with carriers across the globe. And what they hope to do next is learn “how to monetize mobile search better than how we have ever done before.”

Traditionally, products are built in the U.S before rolling out globally. But with engineers based in different markets now, Seth said they are invested in rolling out products from other markets first then bring them to the U.S and Europe where appropriate.

Yahoo Search Direct

Yahoo Search Direct is the next generation of search assist that debuted in America in March. The product is scheduled to launch in Asia, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, and India sometime either later this year or early 2012.

Aimed at users initially, Yahoo claims Search Direct is the fastest search product with a record of 170 milliseconds. Since the rollout, internal statistics show user engagement increased 16 percent from more searches per user per session to per week per month.

Because Direct is full of pictures and videos with few links, Seth said this exposes the product to new kinds of ad opportunities, from display to graphic. Yahoo is experimenting with ways to trigger and track success. The goal is to create a juxtaposition for display and search to come together.

Yahoo Clues

Yahoo Clues, a product that provides information on search trends, received an upgrade in June. It is currently available in the U.S. but in the process of internationalizing to roll out globally in 2012.

The service is also integrating deeply into the search product. For instance, when a user searches for a celebrity on Clues, they will be able to find out where the celebrity ranks in the global list as well as in the local area, ratio of male or females, and which parts of the country people are seeking the information.

Suitable for mass consumption, the senior VP for Yahoo search said Clues would also benefit journalists and brand marketers worldwide.

Yahoo’s Role in and Structured Data

SearchMonkey launched in 2008, which shows Yahoo has been a pioneer in structured data, Seth said. The service worked with publishers and developers across the globe on how to provide structured data on websites to improve the display of search results and make it easier for people to find the right web pages.

However, SearchMonkey shut down in October 2010 after the Yahoo-Microsoft partnership.

Nonetheless, following six months of discussions, Google, Yahoo, and Bing came together to launch in June, where they agreed microdata would be the standard that webmasters can use.

When it comes to where structured data is headed, Seth reiterated Yahoo’s search strategy of answers, not links. He believes search engines are going to move quickly to this format where they will be able to provide clear answers to people’s problems.

“And that only will come when the amount of data especially structured and unstructured data that we assimilate across the web gets to the point of being able to answer lots and lots of different questions people have,” Seth said.

He said users are no longer satisfied with search engines providing links to the page. Increasingly, they demand engines to be able to extract information and provide answers with clarity and quickness through information retrieval usually within seconds.

Search Statistics and Third Party Measurement

Seth last year argued that third party research agencies are potentially misleading the market by using traditional methodologies to measure new search products.

Since then, Yahoo has worked with research firms to provide an opinion on where its search products are headed and how it should be measured such as the launch of Search Direct in March.

“Search is evolving very fast and if you believe what I said that in the next three to five years, the amount of innovation in search is going to be so large that search as a product will change very, very dramatically.”

It will require new metrics, new tracking, and counting methodologies to be able to compare apple to apple across the board and across all the major search engines to provide the kind of guidance that comScore and other companies are able to provide, Seth added.

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