August 30, 2005

Yahoo Improves Search of E-mail Text and Photos

SAN FRANCISCO -- Yahoo Inc., which supplies more than 200 million e-mail accounts globally, said late on Monday it has improved the way people can search text, photos and documents inside e-mail.

Advances in the way people search e-mail reflect the transformation of the popular text communications medium into a means of sharing photos and other documents, turning e-mail increasingly into an individual's personal history archive.

"It's definitely more than what e-mail of yesteryear was," Sabrina Ellis, Yahoo Mail's director of product management, said in a phone interview on Monday ahead of the announcement.

"E-mail is becoming more central to people's lives," Ellis said. "People are storing more things that are personal."

The need to search e-mails is an outgrowth of the expanding capacity of e-mail systems. Spurred by Google's rival Gmail e-mail service, Yahoo offers 1 gigabyte, or billion bytes, of e-mail storage free, or 2 gigabytes for a small annual fee.

"As soon as you have more to store, you need more ways to search," JupiterResearch analyst Eric Peterson said. "A battle is shaping up between Yahoo and Google over who can best organize people's information."

Last week, Google Inc. upgraded its Google Desktop search system to index a user's Gmail or Microsoft Outlook e-mail accounts while also searching the hard drive and Web search history.

While yet to offer such an integrated method of searching all of one's computer resources, Yahoo has made a wide range of incremental innovations to help users manage their personal data, Peterson said. The contest is only just getting started.


Moving beyond simple keyword searches, Yahoo will now allow users to trawl through e-mail files in far greater detail. Searches can focus on subject lines, the body of text and even attached documents, without first having to open the e-mail.

Searches return snippets -- 3-line summaries in the context of adjacent text -- that show a user exactly where each result was found. The left side of the search page includes a navigation menu that offers alternative approaches to search.

Searching for photos by name returns a slideshow of thumbnail versions of the pictures, allowing users to visually select the picture or pictures they wish.

The system is even designed to compensate for a new illiteracy made possible only by the computer age.

Users can search for prefixes, or just the first few letters of a word, in recognition of the sloppy or casual spelling of many e-mail writers in the age of electronic spellcheckers, Ellis said.

Yahoo plans to offer the new service to a small group of its U.S. users initially and then introduce it progressively to users around the globe over the next several months. Users don't have to take any action to enjoy the new service.

A promotional link will appear in the upper right corner of a user's e-mail account when the new search features are available, Yahoo Mail senior product manager Drew Garcia said.

With an estimated 219 million e-mail accounts in July, Yahoo held 35.1 percent of the world market, just behind Microsoft Corp., with 221 million Hotmail users, or 35.5 percent, according to comScore Media Metrix data.

Google counts an unspecified number of "millions" of users for its more recently introduced Gmail.

Yahoo e-mail promises to work quickly because Yahoo indexes all mail, photos and document attachments on its own servers as it passes through the systems from correspondent to recipient.

Users should note that, as more and more personal data passes over such e-mail systems, privacy issues may arise.

"In general, we respond to legal process or requests from law enforcement, as needed," a spokesman said when asked how Yahoo would respond to subpoenas of such e-mail archives.

Details of Yahoo's privacy policy are at http://privacy.yahoo.com/