Yahoo Inc. introduced a test site yesterday devoted exclusively to downloadable audio programs known as podcasts, a move that some say puts the search engine on the forefront of a cutting edge technology and puts it ahead -- at least in this arena -- of its biggest competitor, Google.

The site, at www.podcasts.yahoo.com, offers not only a search feature for podcast fans but also a lineup of podcasts that are new, noteworthy or just popular.

Yahoo's site connects Internet users to everything from shows broadcast over National Public Radio to discussions by movie critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper about the latest films.

But those sort of podcasts are more the exception of what's available. By far, most of the programming is produced by amateur Web users armed with a microphone, an Internet connection and a desire to share some opinions or expertise -- the audio equivalent of Web logs or "blogs."

Analysts said that Yahoo's move could give the Web portal a critical chance to catch up with rivals such as Google as the Internet moves beyond text and into multimedia programs containing audio and video content.

For users of podcast technology, the appeal is obvious -- rather than having to tune in at a particular time to hear a radio show, they can log on and listen to podcasts anytime. With an iPod or some other MP3 player, consumers can also download an audio file and listen on-the-go.

For now, only a small number of people are searching for podcasts, but there's widespread belief that the popularity will only continue to grow.

According to a study by research firm Ipsos Insight, about 28 percent of Web users know what a podcast is but only about 2 percent of that group has actually listened to one.

That doesn't offer much hope for companies such as Yahoo to make any money immediately from a podcast search feature, but it puts them in a good position for the future, said Phil Leigh, president of market research firm Inside Digital Media Inc.

Podcasts serve as another tool to not only drive Web traffic to the Yahoo site but also keep Web surfers from venturing off to other sites.

Apple Computer Inc., which sells music through an online store, recently added a podcast search page to its iTunes software so owners of the iPod music player can directly download such recordings to their players. Like Yahoo, Apple also does not charge for podcast downloads.

The entry by Yahoo was "clearly something they've got to do," Leigh said, noting that content providers and distributors such as Yahoo don't want to ignore a technology that might be the next big thing in the same way that the music industry ignored Napster and other peer-to-peer software that changed its way of doing business.

"There's not a shadow of a doubt that the future of the Internet is about multimedia," he said. "It's about audio now and next it'll be about video."

Leigh said that Yahoo "lost its way" as Google surpassed it as the most-used search tool on the Web and that Yahoo's move could give the Web portal a chance to catch up.

Joe Hayashi, Yahoo's podcast project director, said he realizes that and admits that podcasts don't have much of an audience yet but argues that that will soon change.

"We feel like we can bring a big audience to podcasting," he said.

Once an audience is in place, advertising will soon follow, he predicted.

Users of Yahoo's podcast service don't have to download any software to listen to podcasts, unless they choose to subscribe to a particular show and automatically receive new episodes. Hayashi said that Yahoo's directory makes "tens of thousands" of podcasts available to its users, and is only expected to grow.

The podcast audience is small now, but Yahoo does not want to ignore what might be the next big thing.