Marissa Mayer 'very excited' about contextual search

The Yahoo CEO explained her vision of search based on context

If you think Yahoo has given up on search, think again. The company may have handed its back-end search operations to Microsoft, but Marissa Mayer thinks there's work to be done on mobile devices, particularly around contextual search.

Contextual search aims to give people the right information, at the right time, by looking at signals such as where they're located and what they're doing -- such as walking or driving a car. Mobile devices tend to provide a lot more of those signals.

"When I look at things like contextual search, I get really excited," the Yahoo CEO said Tuesday at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference in San Francisco.

"The amount of information available to build a service on is just incredible," she said.

If contextual search sounds familiar, it's because the idea isn't new, but companies are still striving to get there. It's a goal shared by Google, which is trying to do some of the same things by incorporating more human language processing into its search algorithm. It also provides more contextual information through Google Now.

It's just one of the areas of search that Mayer is excited about. She hopes to achieve her objectives in part through some of the company's many acquisitions.

"We're long on search," Mayer said during an on-stage interview, meaning the company sees it as a good area for investment.

She pointed to Yahoo's acquisition of Aviate as an example. Yahoo announced last month it had bought the company, which organizes the home screen of a person's Android device based on what they're doing at the time. So if a person is walking into a gym or pulling away in a car, the technology uses signals from things like the GPS and accelerometer to push related apps onto the home screen.

Yahoo is interested in technologies like that to make searching for apps -- and information -- easier. The aim is to go "beyond core search," Mayer stressed.

"Aviate gives us a nice building block in terms of what we can do with context, and improve search," she said.

Yahoo has a multi-year agreement in place with Microsoft whereby Bing powers Yahoo's search engine on the back end, but Mayer seems to have search ambitions of her own beyond that.

Yahoo was eager to look at new opportunities around the Microsoft arrangement, she said, but she also sees opportunities to evolve mobile search into something more contextual.

Since taking over as CEO in 2012, Mayer has said mobile will play a key role in Yahoo's efforts to build a suite of products for people's "daily habits." In addition to search, those habits include news, finance, email and photos, Mayer has said.

Yahoo has roughly 800 million monthly active users across its core sites, Mayer said Tuesday, and about 400 million of them are active on mobile devices.

If Yahoo can get more daily users on mobile, it could help it to expand its advertising revenue.

Mayer talked at length Tuesday about Yahoo's efforts around "native advertising," in which advertisers provide content that looks like editorial content. She also talked about its programmatic ad-buying technologies, which can target ads based on user data.

Getting more data from mobile apps could help Yahoo in both these areas, she suggested.

"If you're a brand advertiser, the notion to get your brand on a two-by-three inch screen and see the interaction with that brand on a daily basis ... the opportunity is huge," Mayer said.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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