The Top Query At Today's Yahoo Event? Bing.

screen-shot-2009-08-24-at-42531-pmThe Q&A session following Yahoo’s “What Matters Most” event today was interesting. That is, interesting if you’re confused by the whole Bing/Yahoo strategy going forward. And it would certainly be understandable if you were — especially after an event in which Yahoo did a lot to highlight changes to its search product. You know, the one everyone thought Microsoft was now running.

But there’s an important distinction between Yahoo’s plans for its own search product going forward, and Microsoft’s plans for it. The easiest way to think about it is that Yahoo will be in charge of the frontend side of things for Yahoo Search, while Microsoft will be in charge of the backend — though not all of it. And Yahoo didn’t shy away from questions today as to whether that means that essentially, Yahoo is still competing with Microsoft in search? From a frontend perspective, which is all most users will ever see, it is, says Yahoo.

Yeah, it’s confusing.

Prabhakar Raghavan, Yahoo’s Senior VP of Labs and Search Strategy, tried to answer the questions as best he could. But the vibe seemed to be that he felt confined in giving the answers that Yahoo is making all of its execs give. And even though at least half of the questions during the Q&A session were about Yahoo’s deal with Microsoft, it was clear that plenty of the journalists and bloggers in the audience still weren’t entirely clear what the plan is. Or that Yahoo really knows what the plan is.

We are not a version of Bing. We are the Yahoo search experience,” Raghavan said at one point. And he continued on that it was a complex deal, and not as easy to explain or execute as a straight-up acquisition would be. I’ll say.

While Yahoo is full of PR-ready answers that seem to confuse even them, here’s how I interpreted what Yahoo was basically saying today: “We are Yahoo Search, powered by Bing, but we don’t want you to know we’re powered by Bing.”

Elisa Steele, Chief Marketing Officer of Yahoo, wanted to make it clear that the Yahoo branding would remain intact on all Yahoo Search pages. Okay, and that’s fine, as I said, most users will have no idea what is actually powering their search results. But it’s a little odd that Yahoo Search now sounds more like a search layer of sorts over Bing (though, again, they would never put it that way).

And it’s too bad. After the last event which focused on their search innovation (before the Microsoft deal), I was harsh in my criticism of Yahoo, saying that they weren’t doing enough on the frontend to ever take users away from Google. At today’s event, a new frontend is exactly what they showed off, and some of it looks very good. The people-search aspect in particular strikes me as something I would use, as soon as it gets a way to filter things like tweets by most recent updates — which it’s getting, I’m told.

The left-side filters work well as an obvious visual way to scour various popular services that Yahoo has included. We currently use Yahoo BOSS to power TechCrunch search, it was impressive that when I did a search for my name, one of the options was to see all the TechCrunch articles by me.

Certainly it’s in Yahoo’s interest to get people using Yahoo more, but it is too bad that the main benefactor of all the work Yahoo has been doing to make the frontend of its search more compelling may be Microsoft. I wonder if in a year’s time we won’t just consider Yahoo Search to be the prettier version of Bing.