May 10, 2007 5:00 AM PDT
Yahoo hires economics, sociology researchers
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R. Preston McAfee, the J. Stanley Johnson professor of business, economics and management at the California Institute of Technology, will be a vice president and research fellow leading Yahoo's microeconomics research group. McAfee earned a master's degree in economics and mathematics and a doctoral degree in economics from Purdue University and will work out of Yahoo's offices in Burbank, Calif.
Duncan Watts, professor of sociology at Columbia University, where he was director of the Collective Dynamics Group, and author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, will lead Yahoo's research in human social dynamics, including social networks and collaborative problem solving. He received a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of New South Wales and a doctoral degree in theoretical and applied mechanics from Cornell University and will be based out of Yahoo's New York City offices.
Social networks and markets are the only two areas outside of computer science that represent departments in Yahoo's research unit. Both areas are key to Yahoo and represent growth opportunities for the search firm. The company recently announced plans to acquire online display ad exchange Right Media and it owns the HotJobs employment and Yahoo Personals marketplaces. With popular sites like Flickr and Yahoo Answers, Yahoo also is arguably one of the largest social media platforms on the Web.
Yahoo has assembled "the largest group of academic-level economists in a corporate environment since Bell Labs," McAfee said. "We're not focused on immediate product development, but on where we see these markets going...(The Internet) is the next frontier of the application of market design in the real world."
Watts said his areas of interest include "trying to understand how social networks and communities evolve over time, how people influence each others' behavior and how people find things that are useful."
Both researchers said they were attracted to the university-style environment at Yahoo Research, which accommodates collaboration with outside academics. The men join other notable researchers and research fellows at Yahoo, including Andrei Broder, Raghu Ramakrishnan, Larry Tesler, Andrew Tomkins, Michael Schwartz and Ricardo Baeza-Yates.
Having researchers who aren't focused on computer science will not only help Yahoo improve its product and service development, but could lead to advances in the development of technologies underlying the Internet, said Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Yahoo Research. "The viewpoint and way of thinking (of researchers) is different from people like myself who come from a computer science background," he said.
Yahoo has incorporated algorithmic research into its social media and search platforms and has leveraged research on marketplace design and pricing mechanisms for sponsored search.