Yahoo’s E-Mail Search Gets Tougher

Bidding to one-up rival Google, Yahoo is rolling out enhancements to its Yahoo Mail search functions, enabling users to search attachments and e-mail text for specific words, phrases and photos.

Yahoo said the upgrade is an acknowledgement that many users are stuffing their mailboxes full of messages, an outgrowth of the race to provide nearly unlimited storage to users. Yahoo Mail users now have 2 GB of storage space, enough for hundreds of thousands of messages.

Feature Feeding

Drew Garcia, a senior product manager for Yahoo Mail, said the new features will be gradually rolled out to users starting today, with all users having access to it within a few months.

In addition to the ability to search the text of attachments, the upgrades include more refinement of search answers, with results broken down into five categories: Senders, Folders, Attachments, Message Status, and Date. From there, users can lump messages together, for instance, creating a list of all the messages that meet a search criteria and were sent by the same sender, those that contain photo attachment or those that were sent within a certain time frame.

The search function will also key in on prefixes, letting people find contacts and messages even when they can’t recall a person’s full name.

Garcia said the rollout would take some time because Yahoo wanted to index messages and create thumbnail images of attachments in the Yahoo Mail database. That will enable the same type of near-instant search results that users of Yahoo and other desktop search products get on their own e-mail accounts.

“We are rolling out these features gradually to give us time to thumbnail the millions of photos and attachments and index the billions of messages Yahoo Mail users around the world have accumulated (we’re talking about petabytes of data),” Garcia wrote in his blog.

Unofficial Challenge

Brad Hill, who writes the unofficial Yahoo Web blog, said the new features represent “the first serious challenge to Gmail since Google forced competitors to unsuccessfully chase its ever-expanding storage capacity.” He added that it was smart of Yahoo to “put Google on the defensive where it really hurts, in search.”

Search Engine Watch Editor Gary Price said the Yahoo approach seemed to “raise the bar” on e-mail search, one set by Google’s Gmail.

Despite the advantages of the Yahoo approach, Hill acknowledges it may not have much impact on the Web mail or search wars. “The truth is that it’s painfully difficult to get consumers to switch e-mail providers,” he wrote.

Google launched the ongoing Web mail war last year when it turned the industry on its head with the 1GB of free space and the searchable storage functions of its Gmail product. Since then, Yahoo, AOL and others rushed to match or exceed those storage levels.

Analysts say the investments in Web mail and the commitment to continually upgrade them with new features such as photo mail, search and links with instant messaging products, shows how vigorous the competition is to lock in users. Web mail is considered one of the stickiest of all Web uses, meaning that users with an account are more likely to return often and less likely to leave for a competitor.

Holding on to the Base

In fact, the move is likely as much about defending its strong base of Web mail users against incursions as it is about wresting customers away from rivals. According to data from comScore Media Metrix, Yahoo has some 219 million e-mail accounts, making it second only to Microsoft’s Hotmail, which has 221 million users.

The search function also dovetails with a Yahoo effort to make its Web mail look more like a traditional desktop mail product, with the ability to preview messages and to move them into folders more easily.

And eventually, such mail systems could become a logical single repository for vast quantities of information. With storage space plunging in price, portals can offer virtually unlimited free space, letting users store data on third-party servers, where they are theoretically safer from computer viruses and crashes, said Gartner analyst Alan Weiner.

“This type of e-mail approach could develop into the system that collects, stores and sorts all sorts of information,” Weiner said.

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