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Yahoo! Expands Its Open Strategy With BOSS
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Posted On July 17, 2008
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While some of us may be tired of hearing about the seemingly endless MicroHoo saga, the beleaguered Yahoo! may have just taken a step that could change the web search landscape. Or not. Yahoo! announced that it is extending its Open Strategy with a new open web services platform called Yahoo! Search BOSS (Build your Own Search Service). Apparently hoping that the saying "there’s strength in numbers" holds true, Yahoo! is testing whether working with new partners will give it the clout to take some search market share from King of the Search Hill Google. Several partner sites are already working with BOSS, including the semantic search engine hakia and Me.dium, a personalized search startup.

BOSS allows third-party developers to build their own custom search experiences using Yahoo!’s index and results ranking as a base. Then, developers can blend the results with other web data sources, control the presentation, and rerank results without restrictions. With this first release of BOSS, developers can fetch Yahoo!’s search content for Web, News, Image, and Spelling Suggestions. Yahoo! says that other search verticals and data sources are coming soon but declined to disclose what they might be at this point. A company spokesperson says it will make decisions based on feedback from the beta.

So how is BOSS different from other search APIs out there, such as Google’s or Microsoft’s? Yahoo!’s FAQ says that "for the first time developers can tap into our search infrastructure and build applications for commercial use without restrictions around presentation or ordering of results. You can take BOSS results, blend in your own secret sauce, and build a search engine of your own design, all without required brand attribution."

BOSS also permits unlimited queries per day. (Results are delivered in groups of 50 at a time.) More information and a side-by-side chart comparison of BOSS and the previously available Yahoo! Search API are available at http://developer.yahoo.com/search/boss.

A company spokesperson says that Yahoo! will still offer SearchMonkey. Yahoo!’s SearchMonkey developer platform was a first phase of the Yahoo! open strategy, giving site owners and developers control over the appearance of Yahoo! Search results. BOSS is designed to take Yahoo!’s open strategy to the next level by providing Yahoo! Search infrastructure and technology to developers and companies to help them build their own search experiences.

The BOSS service is currently ad free but not for long. The Yahoo! FAQ says, "It will be a requirement to host our ads on your site. We’re building this technology into our platform and it is coming soon. Yahoo! Search will share the revenue produced through these ads with developers. In the meantime, the API is open for free use without ads."

BOSS is available in several options. The self-service API and the mashup framework tools allow developers to quickly get started in creating new web search experiences. The BOSS Custom service will be offered to select partners with large-scale needs in building and supporting web search experiences. It is currently an invite-only program. Pricing will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Yahoo! has also partnered with the computer science departments of some top universities to allow researchers to conduct open research on search engines. Yahoo! is currently working with Carnegie Mellon University; Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Purdue University; Stanford University; University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign; and the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMASS).

Vik Singh, part of Yahoo!’s Open Search team, wrote on his personal blog (http://zooie.wordpress.com/2008/07/10/yahoo-boss-an-insider-view), "Several months ago I pitched this idea to the executives on how Yahoo! can specifically open up its search assets to fragment the market. It’s remarkable to finally see some of the vision (with the help of many talented people) reach the public today." He shed some insider’s insight on the possibilities of using BOSS. "In my online experience, I typically visit a variety of sites: Techmeme, Digg, Techcrunch, eBay, Amazon, del.icio.us, etc. … The biggest goal of Boss is to help bootstrap sites like these to get comprehensiveness and basic ranking for free, as well as offer tools to re-rank, blend, and overlay the results in a way that revolutionizes the search experience." He also pointed to the future possibilities: "The next couple of milestones for Boss I think are even more interesting and disruptive - server side services, monetization, blending ranking models, more features exposure, query classifiers … so stay tuned."

Possibilities for Niche and Vertical Search

Yahoo!’s senior director of the Open Search Platform, Bill Michels, told Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb that niche search engines often aren’t very good because they have access to a very limited index of content (www.readwriteweb.com/archives/yahoo_opens_its_search_engine.php). It’s expensive to index the whole web. Likewise, Michels said that there are a substantial number of large organizations that have a huge amount of content but don’t have world-class search technology.

In both cases, Yahoo! BOSS is intended to level the playing field and "blow the Big 3 wide open." Says Kirkpatrick: "We agree that it’s very exciting to imagine thousands of new Yahoo! powered niche search engines proliferating. Could Yahoo! plus the respective strengths and communities of all these new players challenge Google? We think they could."

Yahoo! thinks so too. "Today, the search market is generally limited to three major search engines to drive innovation and growth," said Prabhakar Raghavan, chief strategist for Yahoo! Search. "BOSS opens up the playing field for developers and companies to disrupt the search market, become principals in search, and build new Web search experiences that offer more choice for users."

Current Partners

The BOSS site links to four current partner sites as examples of implementations. These include the following: 

  • Hakia (www.hakia.com), a semantic search engine, uses Yahoo! Search BOSS to accelerate its semantic analysis of the web by accessing Yahoo! index’s vast amounts of web documents. 
  • Me.dium (http://me.dium.com/search) combined the BOSS API with its insight into the real-time surfing activity of the crowds to build a "crowd-powered" social search engine prototype. 
  • Daylife To-Go (www.daylife.com/page/yahoosearchondaylife) is a new self-service, hosted publishing platform from Daylife. Anyone can use it to automatically generate customizable pages and widgets. Daylife To-Go uses the BOSS API platform to power its web search module. 
  • Cluuz (www.cluuz.com) generates easier to understand search results through patent pending semantic cluster graphs, image extraction, and tag clouds. The Cluuz analysis is performed in real time on results returned from BOSS API.

Search expert Chris Sherman, writing at SearchEngineLand, says "Me.dium has introduced a social search engine that blends results from a ‘real time’ index of what people are currently viewing online with Yahoo’s full-scale web index. The result is something I’ve not seen elsewhere—and despite my long time skepticism regarding social search, this approach actually holds promise for delivering a unique view of relevant content on the web."

Riza Berkan, Ph.D., CEO of hakia, says, "Accessing Yahoo!’s resources via Yahoo! Search BOSS geometrically increases our ability to QDEX the entire World Wide Web and usher in the next evolution of search—semantic, or natural language search. BOSS is a great testament to Yahoo!’s foresight, strategic thinking and leadership, and illustrates the growing need for new technologies that will improve the user experience and overall search capabilities."

TechCrunch says that it has been enlisted to participate (www.techcrunch.com/2008/07/09/yahoo-radically-opens-web-search-with-boss). "We’re working on a search implementation that will enable readers to conduct searches across the entire network and retrieve results that have been weighted using a custom relevance model. Readers will also be able to drill down by author, comments, date, and other criteria."

Reactions From the Experts

Reactions to Yahoo!’s BOSS have been quite mixed, with some seeing potential disruption in the market as Yahoo! marshals a group of smaller niche and vertical search engines to nibble away at Google. Others, like blogger Om Malik (http://gigaom.com/2008/07/09/yahoo-boss-web-service), see further risk to Yahoo!’s own search business. However, Malik says, "But I think it’s a risk worth taking, for it will shake up the search status quo and offer a way in for the little guys and all their creativity."

Erik Arnold, who builds custom products supported by Google APIs, says, "Building application on top of search is something that I do see happening more and more. People want to make search results more social, and have more vertical applications." He thinks it could also force Google to drop its Site Search pricing. "This is a catch-up from Yahoo, but it is also free. I actually hope that it takes off, and Google lowers their Site Search restrictions. It is hard to do a large scale app with the current pricing. As part of Google’s advantage is their ability to scale, I will also be interested to see if this search application [from Yahoo!] can handle success."

Mark Hendrickson, writing at TechCrunch says, "When you’re the distant second player in web search, you’ve got nothing to lose by making bold moves. So it makes sense that Yahoo has adopted an open strategy with the following idea in mind: woo developers to build on top of your technology, and then display your advertisements to more eyeballs throughout the long tail of the web."

Vanessa Fox, writing at SearchEngineLand (http://searchengineland.com/080710-000100.php), says "Overall, this is an interesting idea from Yahoo! Can it shake up the status quo market share? I’m not so sure about that. But it is another sign of Yahoo!’s commitment to the developer community and of their willingness to think creatively about market share (although they may be thinking more about ways to find distribution channels beyond toolbar deals than they are about helping competing search engines be successful)."

IDC’s Susan Feldman saw more potential for the disruptive possibilities of Yahoo’s BOSS. She says, "IDC’s digital marketplace research has demonstrated that a strong affiliate network will, in the long run, save the major search engines from stagnation. More queries are already going to the specialized Web locations than are going through the major search engines. Helping the long tail of Web sites build their businesses and their advertising revenue streams will also increase the reach and the revenue for Yahoo! Paying attention to building that affiliate network could well change the balance of power in Web search. Yahoo!, by giving these tools to site owners, ties them more strongly to the Yahoo! ecosystem."

Clearly, Yahoo! has some challenges ahead, but with this bold move in pushing its Open Strategy, it is clearly making a strong statement about which companies it wants as partners. But time will tell if this is a wise strategy. In his blog Beyond Search (http://arnoldit.com/wordpress/2008/07/10/hakia-to-accelerate-semantic-analysis-of-the-web), search expert Stephen E. Arnold points to Yahoo!’s current state of "disarray." He says "Any announcement, therefore, may be moving deck chairs on the Titanic. I will take a more skeptical position and say, ‘Let’s see how this plays out.’"


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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