Yahoo answers MS, Google with Search Pad

While Microsoft Corp. dishes out millions to push its Bing platform, Yahoo Inc. is taking a much quieter approach in its quest to catch Google Inc. in the search game, with the launch of a cloud-based tool aimed at simplifying online researching efforts.

The new beta feature, called Search Pad, is an attempt to move away from the traditional “single search with 10 blue links” formula that many search engines have followed for years. When activated, Search Pad will keep tabs on users while conducting research, allowing them to capture and store information and Web sites in one integrated virtual notepad.

Along with giving users the ability to access and add to the notepad across multiple search sessions, the tool also comes with a variety of sharing options. Search Pad users will be able to create a permanent URL to post their research notes and send the links off through Delicious, Facebook or Twitter.

“If you are an IT professional and you wanted to research a dedicated documentation site or get more information from a partner site, the Web search is the hub for every online research task,” said Tom Chi, senior director of user experience at Yahoo. “To be able to save your research in this hub and for it to be there the next time you come back to continue researching is just, sort of, obvious.”

Without Search Pad, users would have to compile research into a Word document or physically write it out on a piece of paper, he added.

Yahoo boasts that Search Pad will automatically recognize when users are conducting research and ask users if they wish to activate the tool. While Search Pad will be available to all users, only Yahoo members will have to log-in if they wish to save their notepad for future use.

Hadley Reynolds, director of search and digital marketplace technologies for IDC Corp., called Search Pad a “clever innovation” that will find some use among Web searchers looking for a convenient way to capture information and pages of interest.

“It is (also) a way of gently tying users to Yahoo’s search service, because the Search Pad ‘notebooks’ you create are saved through a Yahoo ID,” he said. “For many people who use the Web a lot for researching everything from professional questions to vacation planning to health research, the SearchPad feature could be enough of an incentive for them to use Yahoo to record their serious search interests.”

But Shar VanBoskirk, vice-president and principal analyst with Forrester Research Inc., disagreed.

“I do think this is a great feature and something that Yahoo should be developing, although I see it less as a feature to make them more competitive with Google and more as a feature to help them be relevant with consumers and how they search,” she said.

Forrester Research indicates that only 53 per cent of consumers who have Yahoo as their default homepage actually search with Yahoo, VanBoskirk said.

“This means Yahoo has loyal customers who are leaving Yahoo to search somewhere else,” she said. Still, if Search Pad catches on, it could have to improve searcher loyalty and give users a reason to come back to Yahoo, VanBoskirk added.

Another notable Search Pad feature, according to Chi, will examine any text that is copied and pasted into a Search Pad note and automatically identify the Web page, URL and source of the information.

“This is entirely new ground that nobody is really exploring except us,” he said, adding that future search engines will move away from the “10 blue links” model.

This message is very much in line with comments made by CEO Carol Bartz to shareholders last month where she attempted to distance her company from its rivals, referring to Google as “basically a pure search company.”

Despite Bartz’s comments to the contrary, Reynolds said, Yahoo continues to come up with a steady stream of ongoing innovations in the search sector, including developer-oriented tools like Search Monkey and BOSS, as well as consumer-focused tools like Yahoo Answers and SearchPad.

Interestingly, Google’s Notebook feature attempted to tread into similar waters, but the company has decided to stop developing the product early this year, instead promising users it would create new tools using “Notebook-like” functionality.

The closest offering Google currently has to Search Pad is its Google Squared spreadsheet tool, which has been met with mixed reaction from online users. Over at Microsoft, Bing gives users a search history feature that lists previous searches, but nothing much beyond that.

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