Is There a Free Lunch in Search?

Originally published July 7, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I’m pretty sure Yahoo! owes me a free lunch. Perhaps even a dinner. Their new Mindset beta looks suspiciously like a prediction I made two years ago. I thought it would take them three years to get it out. But Yahoo! managed to beat the prediction by a year.

Fearless Predictions… In an article entitled “Search: 2006,” written almost two years ago I made some predictions about what the search game would look like in three years. One of them was the introduction of a new feature by Yahoo!:

“Another innovative new feature is Yahoo!’s Smart Search technology. Extensive user surveys have found that searcher’s feelings about sponsored links changes dramatically, depending on the type of search they’re launching. Generally speaking, the further away they are from a buying decision, the less they like anything that looks like sponsored search results. Yahoo!’s new Smart Search uses the characteristics of each individual search and the searcher’s past history to dynamically build search results based on a user’s predefined preferences. If the search is a less commercial research type request, there will be few (or no) sponsored results showing. If a searcher is looking for the best airfare from St. Louis to New York, Smart Search launches a heavily commercialized search page, complete with instant links through Yahoo! shopping for one-click purchases.

Smart Search marks a continuing attempt by the search industry to keep the user base happy while not jeopardizing the search vendor’s ability to monetize their search traffic. Obviously, Yahoo! would prefer to offer commercialized results for every search to maximize their advertising revenue, but Smart Search is Yahoo!’s response to increasing customer demands to be in control of the level of commercialization on their search portals. To date, no other search portal has put this much control in the user’s hands, and everyone is watching Yahoo!’s experiment to see how successful it is.”

A Striking Resemblance… Now, back to today. Yahoo!’s new Mindset Beta allows the user to adjust a slide rule and tweak the amount of commercialism in their search results. Actually, they go one better than what I suggested. I envisioned being able to adjust the number of sponsored ads that appear. The Yahoo! Beta actually changes the commercialism of the organic search results.

This is an interesting concept. I’ve been climbing on soapbox after soapbox for almost two years now, saying how search is likely to be used during the consideration or research phase, when we’re gathering information, not the actual purchase phase. We may not want results aimed towards generating a purchase.

Now, just as I predicted, Yahoo! is experimenting with putting the control in the user’s hands. At this point, your sponsored ads don’t change. I’m not sure what Yahoo!’s plans are for this in the future.

Tailor Made Search Results In playing with Mindset, I found the interface pretty cool. You slide the selector, and your results update before your eyes. Not everything in their index is included in this beta, but there’s enough to give you a definite feel for the potential. For example, I did a search for Seattle. If you slide the bar all the way to “research” you get sites like Seattle University, Wikipedia’s article on Seattle, the University of Washington, and the official site for the Port of Seattle. If you slide the bar all the way to “shopping” you get Seattle theatre sites, restaurant guides, and for some reason, a Seattle Web cam site. Not sure what that has to do with “shopping,” but it is a beta.

So, a feature that puts the commercialism of the results in the hands of the searcher? It didn’t end up being exactly what I predicted two years ago, but I figure it’s close enough for a free lunch. I’ve got a call in to Jerry Yang. I’ll let you know if I collect.

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