Going forward, the information trove that historically has been thought of as a web of pages must be thought about as a web of objects -- the people, places or politics discussed on those pages. Users' intentions are satisfied by juxtaposing the right objects, not pages. "What this immediately demands is that as we crawl billions of Web pages, we get at the objects within," Raghavan said. The problem is that much of the unstructured data on the Web is missing the very attributes that would prevent you from getting the homepage of the village of Wayne, Maine, for example, when you are looking for Lil Wayne.
Lest you dismiss this as Yahoo's riddle to solve (as if the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Internet service provider didn't have enough conundrums), Raghavan said Yahoo intends to attack the problem by encouraging publishers of information -- isn't that your company? -- to supply Yahoo with "rich structure" to build an ecosystem based on open search.
Customize your search results with SearchMonkey
In fact, Yahoo is already doing this on its new open platform, Search Monkey. Participating companies include Yelp, which provides user-generated reviews on local businesses, and LinkedIn Corp.
The SearchMonkey developer tools let site owners and developers use data services to build apps that make their search results "more useful and visually appealing," says Yahoo, thus driving more relevant traffic to their sites.
Raghavan stressed that Yahoo doesn't promote companies like Yelp that provide it with rich structure. You can customize how your search results will present, but Yahoo search still uses algorithms to rank the results, he said. He likened it to the separation of church and state. "How good you are as a content source is separate from the quality of your content presentation," he said. Users can opt in and out of rich results, he added, but certain sites whose rich results have proven reliable -- like Yelp and LinkedIn -- are turned on by default.
"We're doing battle with EnchantedLearning.com, and they're beating us! This is a two-person Web team that makes content for elementary school kids and they're beating the world's largest museum and research complex," Edson said.
And, he added, Smithsonian traffic is trending down. "Gone are the days when we could count on double-digit increases in a year, without us having done a thing. We thought we were geniuses. We had no idea what was going on," Edson said.
Edson provided some hard evidence of how enhanced Internet search results, a la Yahoo's Raghavan, dictate who really possesses your assets online. SpaceShipOne, the Ansari X Prize winner, is the first privately financed spaceship to carry passengers to outer space. "It is an awesome thing. We have it. It hangs in the National Air and Space Museum, a block from my office," he said. If you go to the NASA website, which partners with the Smithsonian, you get a picture and some info. Wikipedia, Flikr and YouTube run rings around the entry, he said, offering hyperlinks, video set to rock music and 2,000 photos of the artifact tagged by users. "If you want to know about the world, which one of these websites is giving you a better picture."
Edson's job is to create a Smithsonian Commons, a showcase of Smithsonian assets and online "diffuser" of knowledge that rivals or exceeds the institution's physical influence. The mission has taken on urgency, he added, because like most museums, Smithsonian members skew old and are literally dying off. "This is a demographic tidal wave. We have got to get to the right side of the tipping point."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer