Big news. Yahoo has quietly launched a beta service which allows you to use the Yahoo engine to search content that normally sits disaggregated behind proprietary subscription walls. Some of you may recall the old Northern Light service which attempted to do the same but never was able to convince the larger aggregators to play. KeepMedia tried the same model and hoped to use the clout of the Borders Books brand to bring the magazine publishers directly to the table but has since faded from view. When I last talked to representatives from KeepMedia, they were more interested in the potential of their service as a place to sell targeted ad inventory.

This time it seems that the attractiveness of Yahoo’s collective query traffic was just too good to resist and they currently offer a unified search box for the FT, WSJ Online, Forrester, and more. Yahoo Search Blog says that the big aggregators Factiva, Gale, and Lexis-Nexis are on the way in the coming weeks as well. The Factiva and Gale collections have been open to non-subscriber queries for some time now via the Microsoft Office 2003 Marketplace but because it was hidden away in a little Research Pane off of Office 2003, it never had a chance to test the Free Search > Become a Subscriber to Read the Article, model at scale. Yahoo will now test that model in spades.

Don’t misunderstand me. Yahoo Subscriptions will never replace the power and benefit of the specialized search interfaces that aggregators such as Factiva have built for their core customers. But Yahoo will introduce a whole new class of customers to the value of searchable, archived publications that have, to date, been mostly limited to the Information Professional.

Gary Price brings up a good point and asks what will happen when a unified search of premium content and free web content presents the stark economic contrast of the $2.95/article vs. free on the web side by side in the same search results. Look for intense downward pressure between all three main aggregators as they fight to offer the most compelling package to attract these new subscribers. The New York Times already fired the first shot with their TimesSelect plan. The one vendor that can offer both the NY Times and WSJ as well as the rest of their collection for the best price will lock in the lion’s share of the revenue from the Yahoo channel. This price war will be great for the consumer but rip shreds from the margins of the aggregators as they try and come up with the most attractive pricing.

You can be sure that Google will follow in Yahoo’s footsteps soon enough (while huming "anything you can do, I can do better") and maybe even MSN and Ask will play the game once the model has been established. All this activity is going to expose the aggregators to the full force of the wild and fickle world of internet consumer business models in which they have little experience.

Right now it’s a dead heat between Factiva, LexisNexis, or Gale to win the race to be the primary benefactor of Yahoo’s consumer search engine traffic. My guess is that the winner will be the vendor that can offer the most comprehensive collection of content (unfortunately, meta-data is irrelevant for the keyword searches coming from the typical Yahoo searcher) with a subscription model that is both economically attractive and easy to purchase.

Some things that will quickly put one of these vendors in the lead are:

– integration with all major credit cards and PayPal. Bonus if you can tap into Yahoo’s Small Business billing system.
– persistent URLs that allow bloggers to point to specific articles deep within the database. 
– a sense of community. Build in screens to entice subscribers login and see things such as the most popular (linked and viewed) articles and other exclusive features.
– strong relationships with content providers that allow flexibility with pricing. It will take some time to settle on a model that works for the consumer and is sustainable for both the aggregator and publisher.

The race is on. May the vendor with the longest tail win!

Additional commentary by:
John Battelle
Paid Content
Steve Goldstein, CEO of Alacra
John Blossom