"Mail search is broken," Jeff Bonforte, the senior vice president for communications products at Yahoo, which runs one of the most popular free email services, said in an interview.
That is a problem, he continued, because email is our most important memory service, storing photos, conversations, activities and documents from plane tickets to party invitations. "There's a lot of history in your inbox," he said.
For the last year, Yahoo has been working to transform email search. Over the next week, the 225 million users of Yahoo Mail will begin to see the fruits of that effort in the Web version of the service.
When you start typing the name of a person or company in the search box, Yahoo will now automatically suggest what or whom you might be looking for and offer to create a search term. So if you're looking for a ticket you bought from American Airlines, for example, you can limit the results to messages from the carrier and exclude other messages that simply contain the words "American" and "airline."
Yahoo is also indexing the attachments and links that people include in emails. If you search for "photos cricket and India" - as Sriram Chatrathi, one of the leaders of the email project, likes to do - you will get a screen of photos the algorithm determines are connected to the sport, avoiding the need to go through all the emails that contain them.
"It extracts just those photos," Chatrathi said. "It makes photos first-class citizens."
For all searches, users will be able to click a button on the right-hand side of the results to sort by relevance, most recent or oldest, or messages with attachments. And if you link your email account to Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, you can now see profile information about the people you correspond with.
The changes are modest so far, and searches still end up defaulting to standard keyword searches most of the time.
But Yahoo says that the hard engineering work that has gone into Project Bootcamp - its code name for the email overhaul - will allow it to make other improvements in the coming months.
Google, whose Gmail service is the goliath of the industry with more than 900 million users, has been working on its own improvements to email searches.
"There are a bunch of signals that are specific to email that are very personal to you," Garrick Toubassi, the engineering director for Google's Gmail and Inbox products, said in a recent interview. To determine an email's importance to you, he said, Google looks at such factors as whether you opened or replied to it, whether it is bulk mail or one on one, and whether it is time-sensitive.
Google is experimenting with these signals in a separate, mobile-only app called Inbox. It re-sorts Gmail messages by type of content and presents what Google thinks you most want to see at the top. It also tries to group related messages together, such as everything related to a trip.
So far, though, Google has chosen to keep the results of Gmail searches mostly the same as they have always been - all the emails that contain the keywords, presented in reverse chronological order.
Bonforte of Yahoo said that he, too, had decided not to introduce bold changes to Yahoo Mail too quickly. Email users are accustomed to having everything work a certain way, and tampering with that is risky.
"You don't want to lose innovation in an uprising from the users," he said. "If I'm really aggressive on mail, I can push 5 to 10 percent of the users away."
Instead, Yahoo is subtly making changes. Last month, for example, it added a small plus button to the bottom right of the window used to compose emails. If you click on that button, you can drag and drop photos and documents from your email archive, pull in an animated GIF from Yahoo's Tumblr social network, or add the results of a Web search.
Bonforte said the company was testing more radical design changes with small groups of users. It is also figuring out how to bring all of the recent changes to the mobile versions of Yahoo Mail.
Yahoo's chief executive, Marissa Mayer, has repeatedly said that mobile users expect smarter, more personalized search results.
Project Bootcamp is central to that effort, Bonforte said. The indexing technology behind it will be used to create more personal experiences on other Yahoo services, like its fantasy sports games and its new Livetext messaging service.
"Search is just the beginning for us," Bonforte said. "It represents the beginning of smart mail and smart inboxes."
© 2015 New York Times News Service