Yahoo Looks to Mobile to Increase Its Share of Internet Searches

San Diego--Marc Davis, chief scientist and vice president of early stage products at Yahoo, yesterday presented oneSearch with Voice, the company’s mobile search offering, to the Voice Search 2009 conference.

Originally launched in 2007, oneSearch picked up voice search capabilities in 2008 when Yahoo incorporated Vlingo’s speech services.

This push to mobile is crucial for Yahoo. In a U.S. market, where aggregate searches increased by 20 percent, and 90 percent of those increases were on Google’s engines, it is important for Yahoo to carve out some new territory.

When confronted with these statistics and asked about the company’s future viability, Davis was quick to point out that the numbers included Web search results, which, for now, make up a preponderance of total searches.

He suggested the statistics may only be temporarily relevant with the growth of mobile. While never stated explicitly, such comments suggest that Yahoo has moved away from competing directly with Google in terms of traditional Web searches and is looking for new ways to claw its way back to a place of market prominence.  This may be possible through mobile development.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that Americans are now, for the first time ever, collectively spending more on mobile service than they are on devoted landlines. The Bureau’s data points not only to a growing mobile market, but also to the fact that more and more people are using mobile devices to the exclusion of landlines.

Alistair Hill of ComScore found that, from 2007 to 2008, 10 million people in the U.S. used voice search more than once per week. With the number of smart phone users increasing, the market seems primed for the ascension of a real voice search contender.

Yahoo’s voice-enabled offering, Davis contends, can capitalize on that, not by merely offering a mobile version of the company’s Web search, but by providing a service that exploits mobile’s inherent properties to contextualize information.

Using data related to location, time, etc., Yahoo can target its results to the circumstances under which a user is making his search and provide better results. If a user enters a search for a movie on his phone, for instance, rather than taking him to the movie’s Web site, the engine would provide local show times as the first hit, understanding that this is what most users are looking for on mobile devices.

“Mobile search is not about shrinking the Internet onto a small screen,” says Davis.

“This is a different model than Web search. Mobile search is about get me to the thing I want, quickly,” he adds.

Davis explains that users of the mobile Web don’t want to parse through a large number of results. The mobile context isn’t about doing research the way it is on a desktop or notebook computer. Thus, an algorithm that can figure out what users are asking for and deliver it with a minimum of other results is key to mobile search.

Data drawn from mobile devices could be used to determine other contextual information about users to target results and increase speed. Addressing the conference, Davis claimed that, with the use of just common data, it could be deduced that the audience was attendees at a conference. Extrapolating from the location—the San Diego Marriott—and the fact that several phones, not belonging to coworkers, from various locations nationwide, were gathered in a tight cluster, it could be determined that the users were, in fact, at a conference.

Davis, however, seemed most excited to highlight how increased real-time information, especially when combined with voice, could change the way we understand the world. By drawing on spoken data from millions of users, for instance, Yahoo could collate the data by region and compile its results to produce dialect maps of the world, capable of evolving in real-time—something that is both impossible to do in real-time and tedious to do otherwise.

“We’re fortunate to live in a time that data that was transient, the oral life of human civilization, is being captured in a way that we can analyze and study,” Davis says.

If that sounds Orwellian, Davis seems aware of the implications. He prefaced his remarks by indicating that he wasn’t speaking for Yahoo or its privacy policies. “Right now in the industry we’re going to move to a world where users own their own information, where users have the right to read it, correct it, delete it,” he says. “I don’t think a world where users don’t have control of that is a useful one.”

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