As I reported last week, Yahoo SearchMonkey applications are now available to searchers. The Yahoo Search blog posted details last night, saying that searchers can now add SearchMonkey applications via either the gallery (which is in beta) or through promoted links from application developers or web sites. The gallery contains only 39 applications so far (only a select subset of applications make it to the gallery), and several are from Yahoo properties.
It’s unclear if the remaining gallery applications were created by third-party developers or by the web site owners (several are simply credited as "Yahoo! user"). Applications exist for popular sites such as Yelp, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, and StumbleUpon.
We’ve reported about SearchMonkey several times from a developer perspective (see, for instance, Yahoo! Launched SearchMonkey Developer Tool and Creating An Enhanced Listing), but how does the searcher experience rate?
Personalized search experience
I love the idea of additional details in the search results for things I care about. It’s like personalized search results that I have control over. Generally, when search engines surface expanded information in search results, it’s based on what will improve the search experience for most searchers (for instance, Live Search’s expanded Wikipedia listing, Google’s local listings, and Yahoo!’s shopping results. But with SearchMonkey applications, I can tailor my search results with expanded information that will improve my search experience specifically. I can add applications relevant to my interests and turn off enhancements that end up being a distraction.
I would turn off Google’s local listings if I could, because a title and phone number don’t help me as much as the search results title and description, which means the 10 local links above the search results are in my way. I don’t have that option, as Google displays these types of enhanced results based on overall searcher behavior, not my individual ones. For local results, Google has thus far concluded that most searchers find them useful. For video playback, Google found that not enough searchers wanted the feature, so those who used it no longer have it available to them.
The idea of adding these applications is not unlike adding Facebook applications to make your Facebook experience exactly as you like it. It is even likely to motivate me to use Yahoo! search more often. If I can find SearchMonkey applications that enable me to customize my search experience exactly as I like it (and applications for LinkedIn, Yelp, Flickr, and other sites I visit frequently are a big step in that direction), then my Yahoo! results will be substantially differentiated from my Live Search or Google results.
Obstacles to search experience customization
The discoverability of this feature is so low that I find it unlikely to gain adoption by enough searchers to make it worthwhile for anyone to create applications for it. Few searchers ever change default settings, and fewer still go looking to see if customizations are available. And Yahoo! has made this feature difficult to both find and use.
You can’t add applications before you begin searching. It appears that you can only reach the SearchMonkey gallery by performing a search and then choosing the Customize link. Some searchers may be looking to customize their experience before they begin searching, but when they are on the search results page, they are midway into task completion and are unlikely to interrupt that task (searching for something) for another, lower priority one (customizing the search experience).
Even if the searcher did decide to take a break from the task at hand, it’s unclear what "customize" even means in the context of search results. All the searcher has to go on is the anchor text "customize". Customize this particular search result? Your overall Yahoo! account? And clicking the link doesn’t clear things up all that much. You can "browse the gallery" or "manage settings". What gallery and what settings are questions only answered by the adventurous souls who just keep clicking.
If you choose "manage settings", which you just might do if you have no idea what the gallery is, you are presented with a Yahoo! Search Preferences page that lists "enhancements" but provides no description of what those are or how to add new ones.
If you choose "browse the gallery", you are sent to a "Search Gallery" page with a list of "All Enhancements" that again give no context for what might happen with any of them.
The help information provides more detail, but the few who make it this many clicks are even less likely to see the tiny help link and then click again on the question about what enhanced results are. (It takes a minimum of five clicks to get to information that explains what enhanced search results are, and that’s if you already know where to click.)
If you decide to take the blind plunge and add some enhancements in the gallery, you are presented with an unorganized list of applications that’s not alphabetized or categorized by topic. This presentation is manageable with only 39 applications, but could become unwieldy fairly quickly. (You can filter by category or sort by various factors, which should help.)
The search gallery
The gallery has other usability problems. You can’t click from the application description to the site, although you can click into the application details, view the domain, open a new browser tab, and type the address in manually (although even the URL display is a bit confusing).
This shortcoming isn’t an issue with most of the current applications because they are for well-known sites, but as developers create applications from lesser-known sites, the inability to easily check out the site in question further hinders adoption.
You can’t tell if the application listed is an enhanced listing or an info bar until you click into the deeper description. This also makes customization a bit more cumbersome if you prefer one or the other and just want to scan the list and quickly add applications. The list also doesn’t provide an indication of what you’ve already added unless you click through to the details.
A far more usable gallery would be categorized, include a link to the site, an icon or other indicator of the application type, and apps that are already added would be grayed out or otherwise distinguished.
(Yahoo! told me that they are working on an enhancement that indicates “official” applications created by site owners who have authenticated their ownership via Site Explorer, so improvements are in the works.)
In addition to adding applications from the gallery, you can also add applications from promotion links on other sites. For instance, LinkedIn could provide a link on their site for the LinkedIn application and third-party developers could make libraries of their own available. I wasn’t able to find examples of this type of promotion. Even the Yahoo! properties that have applications in the gallery (such as Yahoo! Autos) aren’t promoting those applications on their pages. (A few companies have blogged about their SearchMonkey applications, but they haven’t added the information to their sites.)
Benefiting from a customized search experience
Once you have added some enhancements, you have to be logged in to use them. This is a reasonable requirement, but unfortunately, there’s no way to log in from the Yahoo! search home page. There’s not even a straightforward login option on the Yahoo! home page, just a prompt to log in to Yahoo! mail. I don’t have a Yahoo! mail account, but it’s either click that or go to Flickr, log in there, and come back to Yahoo! for my search.
I generally have found the enhanced listings themselves to be very useful, but the controls around them are a bit cumbersome. The arrow below the result that expands to show the info bar is directly beside the remove application icon and it’s easy to click the wrong one.
Enhanced listings have a help icon and remove application icon that are only visible if you hover to the right of the listing.
Some enhanced listings seem to show up automatically, while others only appear if you click to expand them. And data isn’t always available, as shown below for Yahoo! autos.
Site owner options for opting-out
As I noted last week, some site owners may be worried about lowered click-through rates if their site’s listing includes additional details. If searchers can get all the information they need from the search results, they may not need to visit the site, which could result in fewer overall page views. (It could also potentially increase page views as the additional information may make the listing more compelling and could deepen the overall customer relationship.)
Amit Kumar, Product Management Director of Yahoo! Search, agreed and brought up another point when I asked about this — that much like other types of blended search results (like video and images) that may draw the searcher’s attention and cause those listings to be clicked more often than higher-ranked listings, enhanced listings could have the same effect.
We believe that showing relevant structured data from sites in the context of their search results will only result in increased engagement with those sites. Users engage with brands and sites that they find relevant – and in the context of search, that translates to sites that are helping them be more productive, to get their tasks done faster.
Rich results through SearchMonkey also encourage users to scan the entire page – instead of just focusing on the top result or two. This, again, increases engagement with sites that appear lower in the search rankings – increasing their click-through rates.
Quality of traffic is another aspect here – a better window to the landing page ensures that the traffic the sites get is actually qualified. We do a great job with contextual summaries, but it’s hard to beat a photo, that shows up next to your LinkedIn result, that tells you at a glance if this is the person you’re looking for, or not.
That said, Yahoo! help documentation acknowledges that some site owners might not be happy about third-parties developing applications for their sites and might want to opt-out of the program.
It is possible that SearchMonkey’s data extraction will end up driving additional user traffic to your site. However, if you feel that this data extraction is abusive, there is a couple of ways to block it.
You can either block the Yahoo! Search Monkey user agent at the server level (they provide instructions only for Apache) or you can email a list of URLs with your contact information to email@example.com. They note that because SearchMonkey isn’t a web crawler, it doesn’t follow Robots Exclusion Protocol directives, so blocking the user agent using robots.txt or robots meta tags won’t be effective. (It’s unclear if these blocking methods cause the application to no longer be available for searchers or the additional data simply will no longer display in the search results.)
Strong future potential
The SearchMonkey searcher experience is in beta, so Yahoo! is likely working to improve the overall usability. Their blog post notes:
The launch of the Yahoo! Search Gallery is just the first step in making SearchMonkey applications available and easy to use for consumers. This is the first phase of a larger plan to provide opportunities for viral distribution of SearchMonkey apps. We’re continuing to develop new ways to surface and share useful and high-performance applications in users' search experience and more broadly on the web, so expect more in the near future.
If Yahoo! can make SearchMonkey applications more discoverable, they might help searchers create the perfect search experience, which might convince them to use Yahoo! a little more often.