Yahoo, Now Offering Search as a Web Service

About six months ago, I heard that Yahoo was contemplating offering its entire search platform as a web service, much like Amazon’s S3 storage and EC2 computing services. Since the rumor was short on details and Yahoo was already in the midst of a gut-wrenching upheaval, I didn’t put much stock in it. Apparently I should have, for Yahoo today announced the beta version of BOSS (Build Your Own Search Service), which essentially turns its core search and other related technologies into a free web service that can be used by anyone who wants to build their own search engine. [digg=]

This isn’t simply access to Yahoo’s search results; Google did that ages ago, though I wonder if anyone actually uses it. Rather BOSS will allow anyone to rank, arrange and display search results that befit their own algorithm, without as much as acknowledging that the results are coming from Yahoo. 

Yahoo News Search, Image Search and Yahoo Spell Checker services will all be offered as part of this effort. Combine this with Yahoo’s recently introduced SearchMonkey tool, and you could build a search engine that is entirely your own.

Prabhakar Raghavan, chief strategist for Yahoo Search, said it typically costs around $300 million to build a search engine and its related infrastructure, which is why there are so few players. He has a point: Powerset recently sold out to Microsoft for precisely those reasons.

Raghavan hopes that BOSS could help foster a lot of experimentation around search, and more importantly, around the search experience, because startups will no longer have to spend millions on infrastructure. “The opening up of our search is a philosophical shift, and we are saying that if you can be better than us, so be it,” said Raghavan. “There is no shortage of search ideas, though the barriers were only a few hundred million dollars. You have to be willing to have your lunch eaten in order to disrupt.”

The BOSS service is being offered for free, though as part of the deal users will have to use Yahoo’s Search Advertising. Yahoo believes that by boosting query volumes, it can create more volume for its search advertising and thus begin to grow against its nemeses: Google & Microsoft.

It’s a very bold move by the hobbled online giant, as it puts its own search business at risk. “We are trying to disrupt the market by allowing people to come and build on our platform,” Raghavan admitted. Two startups, Hakia and Me.dium, have already signed on for the service.

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. Far more importantly, however, it helps people to think of Internet search beyond the tried and tired paradigm of proactively “finding” information.

Unlimited queries, the ability to mix with other content including news, and research from universities and other such repositories could really change the game. By allowing folks to use its engines in tandem with their proprietary data (such as a proprietary social graph), Yahoo will allow them to build a different kind of user experience. “We don’t need to see proprietary data but work with them,” Raghavan said.

This isn’t a slam dunk, however. Yahoo still has some serious challenges ahead of it. The company’s hope is to show big gains in search queries and search-query related advertising revenues. Just like I hope to be the starting pitcher for the Yankees.

Yahoo executives didn’t answer my repeated questions about the potential impact on their business. Notably, they are asking startups to sign up for their search monetization system — the very same system that is going to use Google to drum up ads. That isn’t a very confidence-inspiring move. And if this monetization tool was so great, Yahoo wouldn’t be in the kind of trouble it’s in. If you’re a startup, do you want to hitch your wagon to a wanna-be ad system?

My reservations aside, this is a big, gutsy move by Yahoo to emerge from the stupor that has enveloped the company and the search industry at large. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of this experiment.

Yahoo’s Blog has more details on the new offering.