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Commoditizing Relevance: Can Yahoo! create the next wave in Search?

Recently the New York Times published an article about Yahoo!’s attempt to bootstrap the next generation of search by opening their search platform to start-up partners. Yahoo!’s revenue gain from this approach, at least short-term, is probably not going to be significant. But it does suggest a potential threat to Google’s dominance. Why? Simply put, Yahoo! is trying commoditize Google’s secret weapon, “relevance”, which would open the way for the next innovation in search.

Relevance has been the key innovation in online search since about 2005, but it’s not the first innovation, and Yahoo! is banking on the reasonable assumption that it won’t be the last. The state of the art in search has moved through a series of innovations, each of which created a top competitor. These were, in rough order,

Directories like Galaxy, where content was managed and organized largely by humans,

Content-Rich Search engines like Alta Vista, which provided enormous amounts of information without the kind of rigorous relevance we expect today,

Portal-based search engines like Yahoo!, where the engine was part of a community, and

Relevance-based search engines, which has been the core of Google’s brand from its inception.

With each generation the previous innovation generally became a commoditized feature of a new product: something that people expected, rather than something that differentiated the product from other products.

So can Yahoo! commoditize relevance? It depends on whether or not relevance is truly ready to become a standard feature of search. If it’s not ready, then new services won’t satisfy a key need and won’t be used. Ask.com, for example, had an innovative interface that emphasized usability, but its searches lacked relevance. As a result people never adopted the engine, but opted to stay instead with Google and Yahoo!, both of which provide excellent relevance in searches.

Still, if Yahoo! can succeed in providing its relevance engine as a feeder for companies that are providing additional value ON TOP OF their relevance engine, they could create a new revolution in search by giving developers a demanded and key feature that will be added to some new search innovation.

That could, yet again, change everything.

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