How Yahoo Could Get Back In The Search Game

Google is the clear winner in Web search, but Yahoo still thinks it can make a dent in the market—even though Yahoo Web search technically doesn’t exist since the company handed over its search technologies to Microsoft in 2009

AsKara Swisher at Recode reported last week,Yahoo wants to convince Apple to make Yahoo Search the default search engine on iPhones, iPads, and other iOS devices. The strategy takes advantage of an ongoing rift between Apple and Google: Apple booted Google Maps and YouTube from iPhones’ homescreens in 2012.

There’s a logic to the push—if only that Google’s Android devices and Microsoft’s Windows devices seem out of reach to Yahoo’s products.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s “plan to pitch Apple on the idea as its marquee mobile search partner is far along,” Swisher reported. According to people close to the company, Yahoo “has prepared detailed [presentations], including images of what such a search product would look like, and hopes to present them to Apple execs.”

Still, the idea seems farfetched. Yahoo is reportedly working on efforts to juice up its Web search technologies after handing them over to Microsoft, but it’s unlikely Yahoo can unseat Google as the Web’s most trusted search engine.

Ah, but that assumes that we define search the way Google does it. Yahoo’s best shot is not to play Google’s game.

Moving Towards Mobile

Thanks to a loophole in Yahoo’s search deal with Microsoft, Yahoo is free to pursue mobile search deals. And that’s conveniently where it could help Apple—and bypass Google.

On mobile devices, people often aren’t searching for Web pages. They’re searching for apps. 

Apple’s App Store generates billions of dollars in revenue, but it’s weak in surfacing relevant applications that consumers might want to download. At the same time, it’s nearly impossible for users to search for information across existing apps, because the technology to index applications like Web pages hasn’t been developed for the mainstream—yet. 

See Also: Why Google’s App Indexing In Android KitKat Is A Game Changer

Google recently updated Android to simplify search within apps and link directly to specific locations within an app, often called “deep linking.” Android developers can now index their applications so that these links appear directly in Web searches, which will take users to specific pages within apps.

App indexing, or deep linking, is going to change the way developers and marketers distribute applications. We’ll likely see people optimize their apps for search in the same way that they currently do for websites. But more importantly, this kind of indexing will make it much easier for users to find relevant applications. 

Apple doesn’t have a search engine like this, which puts it at a big disadvantage with both developers and consumers. Yahoo’s technologies could overhaul the iOS app ecosystem the same way Google did with Android.

And Yahoo could extend this deal to the desktop. Another loophole in the Microsoft deal allows Yahoo to offer contextual search, which essentially means delivering formatted information in response to a search query rather than a list of links to Web pages. For example, a search for “weather” might display the current temperature rather than a list of weather websites.

Yahoo could serve up links to relevant apps from its desktop search as contextual answers to queries, driving more downloads—which fits neatly with the agenda of Apple and its large army of developers. 

Delivering Information In The Moment

App search is still a wide-open field, and two startups recently acquired by Yahoo could help fuel this app-driven reinvention of Yahoo Search.

Aviate, an “intelligent homescreen” application, redistributes applications on Android homescreens to provide helpful apps when you need them. For instance, if you’re an avid Twitter user in the morning but prefer browsing Facebook on your train commute home, Aviate will put Twitter front and center first, then replace it with Facebook when you leave the office in the afternoon. 

See Also: Can Yahoo Inspire Us?

If and when Aviate—or a technology like it—finally comes to iOS, it could be the default application manager across Apple’s devices, giving users a more personalized experience by surfacing important applications when they’re needed and putting infrequently-used applications in the background. Aviate’s technologies could also fit more generally into an app search engine’s infrastructure.

Sparq, a mobile marketing company brought into the Yahoo fold in January, also offered technology that allows people to jump from app to app via deep links. Sparq’s product was shut down, but it’s clear how Yahoo might integrate the underlying technologies. Together with Aviate, users could discover more mobile content without ever needing to leave the search bar. And that’s exactly what Yahoo—and by extension, Apple—would want.

How Do You Map An App?

For Yahoo to succeed in in-app search, it would first have to convince developers to give Yahoo access to their APIs and opt to be a part of its mobile search index. 

On its own, Yahoo might have a hard time convincing app creators to share their data, but by building services that appeal to mobile developers—and partnering with Apple, of course—app developers would have a financial interest in enabling Yahoo’s mobile search engine. Perhaps they might go beyond allowing Yahoo to index their apps and also promote Yahoo’s search within their products. 

App indexing requires extra steps on the part of developers to configure the relationships between websites and apps. First, it needs filters on a website that specify how a page’s content can be reached in an application, then it needs filters that can tell how, exactly, that information can be opened in an application. Google provides deep technical details for Android here. Part of Yahoo’s challenge is to build similar tools for developers.

By bridging contextual and mobile search, Yahoo could provide a mobile search engine that would send users to the right application at the right time—which is something Apple will need to compete with Google in the years ahead. 

Of course, Apple wouldn’t partner with Yahoo because Mayer shows Apple executives some pretty slides. A search partnership with Yahoo would free Apple from sending billions of dollars of advertising business to its mobile archrival through its devices.

In the long term, Yahoo could give Apple what TechCrunch columnist MG Siegler calls “the Google-free iPhone.” It’s a high-risk bet. But for Yahoo and Apple, the only other choice is letting Google run away with app search the way it did with the Web.

Lead image courtesy of TechCrunch via Flickr.

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