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Yahoo buys SkyPhrase to better understand natural language

Yahoo has acquired SkyPhrase, a natural language processing startup, in a move that could improve Yahoo's ability to make sense of user queries and commands across any number of Yahoo products.

Terms of the deal, which was announced Monday, were not disclosed. SkyPhrase's team has joined Yahoo's Labs business unit in New York City, a Yahoo spokeswoman said.

Yahoo Labs is a science and research division of Yahoo focused on next-generation products and services. The division is active in a number of areas -- human computer interaction, mobile and personalization are just a few -- and it's unclear into which areas specifically SkyPhrase's technology might be integrated.

What's clear is that Yahoo wants to make its services smarter at understanding natural language. By joining Yahoo Labs, both companies can "continue to work on our shared vision of making computers deeply understand people's natural language and intentions," SkyPhrase said in its announcement of the acquisition. SkyPhrase could not be immediately reached to comment further.

A cached version of the startup's website offers a clue: sports. In addition to Web analytics, SkyPhrase's business at one point included technology for National Football League statistics. The technology could be integrated into Yahoo's Sports services, which include stats, real-time scores and breaking news, and also Yahoo's Fantasy sports apps.

There are some obvious areas of Yahoo's Fantasy sports apps that could benefit from SkyPhrase's technology. The company's Fantasy Sports Football app, for instance, lets users pick players, chat with others and check message boards. Providing a suite of mobile products focused on personal experiences is a stated goal for Yahoo, so it would make sense for the company to try to improve its services there.

Natural language processing is also a hot area of search critical to the success of Yahoo's biggest competitors like Facebook and Google. Facebook is working on its own natural language search engine with Graph Search, which was announced earlier this year. And Google is constantly working to improve its search algorithms to better understand more complex queries. Its latest search ranking system, "Hummingbird," was designed for precisely that.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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