Think of it as just-in-time Internet content. Increasingly, Web sites are trying to divine what you are looking for so they can extract it from databases, rather than making you hunt through a bunch of Web pages yourself.
You can see hints of this in the new search service that Yahoo debuted this week. When you type certain queries in the new search box, Yahoo presents exactly what it thinks you're looking for rather than just links to relevant material elsewhere.
Type in "map Gaithersburg," for instance, and the first thing you'll see isn't a list of Web sites but a sizable map of the Gaithersburg area, with the regular Web matches displayed beneath it. Similarly, type "1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Washington DC 20500" into Yahoo's query box and you'll get a detailed map of the streets surrounding the White House and links to driving directions.
Along the same lines, typing "weather 22301" produces an illustrated weather chart for Alexandria, showing current temperature, the day's expected high and low, and a link to the five-day forecast. Yahoo is ushering in similar tricks if you use the keywords "news" for headlines related to your query and "define" for a dictionary definition of your term.
Cynics will see this as just another example of Web portals shoving their own stuff in your face so you will stick around longer. But not me. Yahoo is touting its own content, sure, but what I find interesting is how Internet navigation is evolving to a higher level, one in which basic look-ups -- the ones we do most often -- become faster if we master a special syntax.
The pioneer of what Yahoo calls its new "content shortcuts" is Google, the Web's most heavily used search engine. Google has integrated various databases and shortcuts directly in its query box, including a telephone book with a reverse look-up. Type "408 349 3300" into Google's box, for instance, and you'll discover the number belongs to Yahoo in Sunnyvale, Calif. The same holds true for residential listings -- enter any friend's phone number and see for yourself. You can also type "phonebook: Leonard Smith VA" at Google and see all the Leonard Smiths listed in Google's phone book for Virginia, separated into white- and yellow-pages listings.
Yahoo has not copied this phone number trick, but it is mimicking the general concept by integrating yellow-pages data into its search box, using Zip codes and business categories as shortcuts. Typing "20854 restaurants" into Yahoo's search box yields the names and phone numbers of three Potomac eateries, with a link to the full yellow-pages listings. Similarly, entering "Manassas VA dentists" pulls up dentists in Manassas. The syntax is fairly elaborate and works with franchise names such as "Sam Goody" and "Blockbuster."
It remains to be seen how many folks will take the trouble to learn this fancy syntax for Web queries. Conventional wisdom says the shortcuts will mostly appeal to only librarians and computer geeks. But I'm betting against the grain again, believing search shortcuts will sneak into the steadily expanding Internet vocabulary of mainstream users.
Consider how fast "Google" became a generic verb for looking anything or anyone up online. Just six years ago, I remember the leader of a major American media company telling me he was convinced the then-fledgling Internet search services would never become a big business. "Why not?" I asked. "Because most people will never use Web search," he insisted. "I don't see how Yahoo can build a mass audience when the vast majority of people don't have the time or patience to wade through all those long lists of links."
He was wrong, of course, about Internet search going mainstream. Yet I suspect he was right on another key point: Most people would prefer someone else do the tedious hunting on their behalf.
Yahoo and rivals spent years amassing so much information -- news, stock quotes, music, maps, weather, personals and the like -- that their typical users barely scratch the surface today. Navigation remains Yahoo's Achilles' heel, in my opinion. It's also a key reason I use almost nothing on its network beyond e-mail, news and Yahoo Groups -- even though I'm a regular Yahoo visitor.
Partly for that reason, Yahoo this week ushered in more than 100 new keyword shortcuts for its network. The activating code is the exclamation mark that distinguishes the "Yahoo!" logo. If you type "fantasy baseball" followed by "!" into Yahoo's search box, you will be whisked to the fantasy baseball section of Yahoo Sports. At least 134 new keywords will take you to different sections of Yahoo if followed by "!" Here, of course, the company is taking a cue from America Online, which has long offered members a proprietary keyword system.
Yahoo also is revamping its shopping search, making it more streamlined and adding a Web-wide product search. (The new product search can be found at new.search.yahoo.com/web/advanced.) Unlike Google's experimental "Froogle" shopping service, which aggregates products from merchants that have no business relationship with Google, Yahoo's product search ties together thousands of stores that rent virtual space from Yahoo. That business relationship allows Yahoo shopping users to add items into a single cart and buy more than one item at a time.
From a business point of view, Yahoo's search makeover is all about driving greater usage of its search box, which theoretically should boost revenue because an increasing amount of Internet advertising is targeted to search results. You'll notice Yahoo is scrapping most banner ads atop its search pages and -- copying Google again -- adding text-based ads in the right-hand margin. Already, revenue from Yahoo's sponsored search results saw its biggest one-day growth spurt ever on Tuesday, chief executive Terry S. Semel announced last night.
It is still unclear, though, who Yahoo's long-term partners will be in delivering search-results advertising and technology. Given the enormous flux in the search industry today, I wouldn't be surprised if Yahoo made more acquisitions (beyond the Inktomi purchase it recently closed) to beef up its tool kit for integrating content and advertising.
However it happens, the trend is clear: Yahoo wants to tap databases to deliver relevant information -- much of it local -- at the precise moment you post your query.
Which, of course, is why Yahoo's search box just grew wider.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is email@example.com.