Yahoo Plays Catch Up With Email, IM Upgrades

I’m counted as one of the 106 million unique users that check in to their *Yahoo* Mail accounts at least once a month — but I rarely use it because the interface has been buggy, the display ads are intrusive, and for the most part, Gmail keeps adding new features that keep me hooked.

And I’m not the only person who feels that way. Though Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) Mail still dwarfs Gmail in terms of reach, Google’s webmail platform is adding new users at a rate of about 46 percent; Yahoo’s growth rate is at 22 percent.

And Yahoo clearly wants to retain the top spot, so it’s juicing up Yahoo Mail with a new, less-cluttered interface and more social features. The company unveiled the upgrades, which will roll out globally over the next few weeks, today during a press briefing. It also showed off new features for Yahoo Messenger and Yahoo Search.

Making Yahoo Mail look and handle better: Yahoo has been chided for moving too slowly when it comes to incorporating technology from the startups it acquires, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Xoopit, the social email startup it bought out in July. The new mail upgrades are very social: Users will be able to share status updates, send and respond to Evites, as well as lightly edit photos directly in the email window.

Then — there are the ads. Yahoo Mail VP Jonathan Kremer said a big part of the upgrade was “cleaning up the interface to get rid of some annoying ad units.” The apps box, which is what lets users access third-party services like Evite and PayPal, is replacing a large ad unit on the bottom left corner of the inbox.

Playing with Yahoo Messenger: One of the best new features is a live video chat; Dave Merriweather, senior director of Yahoo Messenger, showed how users could share pictures while in the video chat screen, drag-and-drop the viewing window, and even put the video chat “on hold”.

Very cool — but Google added this capability to Gmail through Gtalk last November. Users can also view just the status updates of their Yahoo Messenger contacts (which makes it look like a mini Twitter stream).

Let’s not forget about search: The *Microsoft*-Yahoo search partnership may be a done deal, but the company rhetoric remains the same. “We’re committed to continuing to invest in search,” said Larry Cornett, Yahoo’s VP of search products and design.

Cornett offered a peek at the back-end of what the core Yahoo search page would look like (click on the story image to shuffle through the screengrabs), complete with targeted display ads in the center, as well as room for apps like Search Pad and third-party content feeds on the left pane.

He also demoed Yahoo Search’s new social media indexing capabilities: Searchers can enter a name and sift through LinkedIn profiles, Twitter updates and publicly available Facebook info (like pictures and wall posts) right in the results. “When you want to search for people, you will come to Yahoo,” Cornett said.