Yahoo’s New Search Head Takes Skepticism Head On

I’m not sure Shashi Seth knew what he was getting into, but he must have had an inkling. Yahoo‘s (s YHOO) new SVP of search products (as of three weeks ago) invited the press down to Sunnyvale today to try to “reset” perceptions and misconceptions about Yahoo’s place in search. It didn’t really work, with a string of feature demos unaided by presentation glitches and a power outage leaving everyone asking about comparisons to Google (s GOOG) and Bing (s MSFT). The majority of the search features demoed today had already been launched in the last six months — “Search Assist,” integration of Twitter and other sources into Yahoo News, a redesigned main search page. Today’s fresh new launch was a special shortcut for the Winter Olympics (Whoo!).

But Seth — whom I first met when he was deployed from Google to Yahoo almost exactly¬†three years ago, and has since moved to startup Cooliris and then AOL (s AOL) and now Yahoo — managed to win the room over to some extent by acknowledging his underdog status. (Though with that kind of job history, it’s hard to convey you’re in it for the long haul!) By the end, I don’t think anybody really believed that Yahoo would beat Google, but at least they wanted Yahoo to get its act together and try.

Here were the purple-shirt-clad Seth and his team’s core points:

* Seth: “With with Microsoft-Yahoo deal, there is a misconception that Yahoo may not be in the game of search. Yahoo has been in search, is in search, and will continue to be in search in the future.”

* “We have 600 million users who love our content and properties, and we are focusing efforts in search to provide a differentiated experience where people spend a lot of time.” First up is better integration of search within Yahoo’s own properties — for instance, a potential product that would show related content to keywords in the text of an email right within the email (creepy!).

* Seth added, “As for competing with Bing, I’m actually not worried about them, because I think that there is much innovation left to be done in this space, and the core experiences we have around content and communication is going to set us apart and create the next generation of search.”

* Seth called recent search improvements by the competition “incremental change.” He said “We can take bigger risks because we’re not the market leader.”

* This from Larry Cornett, vice president of the Yahoo Search consumer products division, on competitors’ ability to quickly mimic any Yahoo improvements: “Yes they can copy the surface layer, but it sucks. We rock. We think about the science layer, we’re not just adding surface-level candy on top of it.” (Yeah, OK, so it wasn’t total humility!) Prabhakar Raghavan, the head of Yahoo Labs, emphasized his team’s excellence in the academic community, writing textbooks and winning prizes for their search research.