Yahoo makes local search, social moves

A beta of Yahoo Messenger has been more tightly integrated with third-party social-networking services

Yahoo announced on Tuesday new and enhanced products and services intended to improve the company's offerings in local search and social media.

Yahoo will integrate Twitter and Zynga broadly on its Web properties, while a new beta version of Yahoo Messenger packs a number of social-networking features.

In Yahoo's search engine, the company will offer applications that will allow users to perform actions with local results from within the engine's interface. It includes an upgrade of Yahoo Sketch-a-Search for finding local restaurants.

Yahoo also announced the launch of a program called Local Offers, designed to offer Yahoo users special deals, offers and coupons from local merchants. Initial partners include Groupon, LivingSocial, DealOn, Zozi, Tippr, Coupons.com and Valpak.

The announcements are being made at Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco at a press event led by Yahoo Chief Product Officer Blake Irving, who promised that Yahoo will accelerate its pace of innovation over the course of the next year.

Tuesday's announcements seem mostly to build on technology and services that were made popular outside of Yahoo, but Irving said changes in the company's culture and technology infrastructure improvements will yield "big pops of innovation."

"You'll start seeing those things that will make people go: 'No way! From Yahoo?'"

Irving, who has been with Yahoo for about six months, said that he has focused in part on creating a welcoming atmosphere for innovation at the company. "You create a culture that's safe for innovation and lets people move fast," he said.

Yahoo Messenger's new social functionalities include the ability to play games from social gaming companies like Zynga and post, view and comment on status updates from Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo's Flickr, without leaving the IM service's interface. It also provides interoperability with Facebook's chat function.

The Zynga links extend beyond Yahoo Messenger and include My Yahoo, Yahoo Toolbar, Yahoo Games and Yahoo Pulse, which used to be called Yahoo Profiles. "One of the most engaging ways to connect with other people is through social gaming," said Kakul Srivastava, vice president of Product Management, Communications and Communities, at Yahoo.

Twitter has also been integrated in Yahoo's home page, Yahoo Mail and Yahoo Pulse.

The Local Offers program is being tested with limited numbers of users as Yahoo determines the best and most effective ways of surfacing these deals.

Matt Idema, Yahoo vice president of Local, said the company isn't ready to provide specific details about when and how users will be served deal notices.

However, he acknowledged the concept at this point is to surface the offers in an organic way as people move through Yahoo, and not so much to have a specific Yahoo deals website. It's likely that the deals will feature social elements, such as an ability for users to share them and comment on them, he said.

"Those are all elements of the experience we're testing," Idema said.

The benefit for partners and for users will be to have a big store of deals consolidated and aggregated within Yahoo, which gives partners a bigger yet targeted audience and simplifies the discovery of these offers for consumers, he said.

"We don't see anyone else taking our approach," Idema said in an interview after the press conference. Yahoo will share revenue with its partners.

The local search applications are focused now on finding restaurants and planning a dine-out experience. These Quick Apps, as Yahoo describes them, will roll out later this week and include the improved Sketch-a-Search, now for desktop browsers and iPad, in addition to the iPhone. This application lets users draw lines on a Yahoo map to narrow the search area and obtain not only restaurant information but also ratings. Integration with Open Table will allow users to make reservations without leaving the search results page.

In the coming months, Yahoo will deliver a Restaurant Comparison Quick App, which provides a table for comparing elements of multiple restaurants, including price range, distance, cuisine type and ratings, as well as Rich Search Assist, which will provide not only query completion suggestions but also richer elements, like photos and other data.

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Juan Carlos Perez

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