The partnership between Microsoft and Yahoo, announced Tuesday, will mark the end of Yahoo Search. Next year, when the deal is expected to be finalized, if you run a search on Yahoo Microsoft’s Bing search engine will be the underlying technology serving up results. Other Yahoo services remain intact, but the departure of Yahoo Search deserves a moment of reflection. After all, search is where it all began for Yahoo.
Yahoo started out in 1994 as a ragtag site called “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” named after founders Jerry Yang and David Filo, who were at the time students at Stanford University. The name changed to “Yahoo” soon after. The name “Yahoo” was picked because it stood for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle,” according Yahoo’s own history. And a hierarchy it was.
Initially, Yahoo was a repository of hand-selected links, complete with written descriptions of each Web site — a far cry from today’s search engines that mindlessly spider billions of Web pages and index them. Back then, if you wanted to find the rules to tennis on Yahoo, for example, you would navigate to the Recreation & Sports category, then Sports, then Tennis and finally Instructions. (The service lives on today as the Yahoo Directory)
By 1995 Yahoo had an index of about 25,000 Web sites. Its big competitors at the time were Inktomi and Digital Equipment’s Alta Vista. In those halcyon days of the Internet, people loved Yahoo’s directory because human-picked links did a better job of indexing the Internet than robot Web crawlers.
As the number of new Websites grew, Yahoo couldn’t keep pace. Sometime before 2000, it began working with search provider Inktomi to provide an index of Web sites that could be keyword searched. Ironically, Google became the muscle behind Yahoo Search in 2000, providing faster and better results than the Inktomi engine Yahoo was using at the time. That deal wasn’t meant to last, though. Over the next few years, Yahoo made it clear that it wanted a bigger piece of the search engine pie. (The image on the left is of Yahoo.com from 2001 compliments of the Internet Archive)
In 2002, Yahoo purchased Inktomi outright, hoping that in-house engineers could formulate a better search experience. A year later, Yahoo made an even bigger buy, plunking down $1.63 billion to own Overture Services, a commercial search provider that Yahoo was already using to handle pay-for-performance listings.
As Google became more dominant, there were signs that Microsoft and Yahoo were destined for each other. Microsoft, for instance, hung on to its deals with Overture even with Yahoo in control. It’s the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” situation, where neither company wants to be distracted with each other when there’s a bigger target out there.
And Yahoo did target Google. In 2004, the company began to phase out the Google search services it had used for years. Search was looking like more of a priority for Yahoo, as the company vowed to build new services for Web searchers, such as technology to filter out redundant URLs. Its search engine was called Yahoo Slurp, a version of the search engine is still in use today.
That was five years ago, but the story hasn’t really changed. Google never slipped from its role as the Goliath of search, and Yahoo would only fall further behind thanks to Microsoft’s Bing search engine. It’s wise to for Yahoo to hang back and tend to the portal while Microsoft beefs its ranks and goes to war.
Months before the search deal, it seemed Yahoo had soured on the idea of traditional search. The company had laid out a new vision for the site, one that went above and beyond the “10 blue links” that so often result from a Web search. But I wonder if Yahoo’s heart was really in it. Search isn’t everything, after all.
In a way, it looks like Yahoo is back to basics, focusing on delivering news, answers, events and e-mail instead of indexing the Internet. Visit the upcoming redesign, and it still looks like a Web portal, and one can imagine how search will become even less of a featured attraction when it’s being powered by Microsoft.
Funny how the company that started out as a filter for the best information will be able return to its roots — in a sense. But it’s also sad in a nostalgic way. Yahoo will never search again.