Yahoo has offered a peek at how its search results are likely to be displayed a few months from now, as it tries to find a better alternative to the traditional "10 blue links".
"People don't really want to search," said Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Yahoo Labs and Yahoo's search strategy, in a meeting with reporters in San Francisco on Tuesday. Their objective is to quickly uncover the information they are looking for, not to scroll through a list of links to web pages.
Yahoo's answer is to try to figure out the "intent" of the person conducting the search, and then present various types of information within the results that relate to what they are looking for, such as restaurant reviews, movie times, flight schedules and so on.
Yahoo showed a slightly different page layout for displaying search results that it's currently testing with users. Search results for the name of a restaurant lead off with a map showing its location, followed by links to an aggregated selection of reviews, photos and directions. Yahoo is revamping its image search in a similar way.
Moving away from the 'blue links' is something all the main search companies have been exploring. Even Google, which dominates web search and has the least to gain from disrupting the status quo, has been blending news, video and other content with its results.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has admitted how tough it is to beat Google at its own game, and suggested that the only way to win market share in search is to change the playing field and do things differently.
Yahoo apparently feels the same. It says it wants to move web search away from the "web of pages" that exists today and toward a "web of objects". Objects are anything that exists in the world - people, places and things - and they can all be mapped together to present search results in more useful ways, according to Raghavan.
"The real world we live and work in is full of objects - politicians, professors, monuments, restaurants, neighbourhoods. Each has certain attributes, like what kind of food it serves or where it is located," he said.
The goal is to organise results in a way that reflects how those objects relate to each other in real life. Searching for 'Paris', for example, should reveal related 'objects' such as travel guides, cheap airplane tickets, and images of the city - in short, all the related content users might want to see.
"We're going to stop worrying about how many billions of pages can be indexed," Raghavan said. "It's about building and creating the most comprehensive web of objects."
Part of the challenge is figuring out the user's intent. "You cater to the user's intent as best you can define it," he said. For example, there are many towns in the world called Syracuse, but if a person is searching for 'Syracuse restaurant' and it's 6 pm Eastern Time in the US, there's a good chance they are in Syracuse, New York, because that's where it's time for dinner.
The other challenge is creating the web of objects. Yahoo plans to do it with software algorithms but also using "the wisdom of crowds". Specifically, it will use data provided through its SearchMonkey project, which encourages site owners to provide structured data about the content on their websites.
Still, building the web of objects is a long-term effort and will apply to only a fraction of search queries to begin with. "This is going to take years" to complete, Raghavan said.
The new search layouts are being tested with a small sample of Yahoo users. If the testing goes well, they'll be rolled out widely in two to three months, said Larry Cornett, vice president for consumer products in Yahoo's search group.