Yahoo CTO Raymie Stata explains how Yahoo collects user data to make recommendations.In the last week, Google introduced instant search, Microsoft finally released a modern browser and Twitter released a revamped website intended to be a one-stop shop for what’s new for you.
Yahoo responded by calling reporters to its headquarters in Sunnyvale and laying out hundreds of yards of purple carpet leading to a demo room where their new head of products told the media that Yahoo has lots of cool things coming up soon.
Yahoo, it seems, wanted to remind reporters, the world, and maybe even its own employees that it’s still a relevant tech company, building cool products. Certainly, there’s no denying that it has a huge user base for its homepage, news, sports, finance and entertainment sites. Six hundred million people a month visit Yahoo.com. Yahoo also runs the world’s most popular webmail service, with 281 million users, and makes billions from display advertising.
But it’s simultaneously got a Rodney Dangerfield-esque chip on its shoulder and an identity complex. Even though it’s farmed out its search crawler to Microsoft, the company has been working on how it presents results — which for common terms are often far better than on other search engines — try the queries “Toy Story 3? or “Tom Waits” comparatively, and Yahoo looks pretty good.
Yet, the tech press has mostly dismissed Yahoo as a player in search, despite having 17 percent of the very lucrative search market, placing it firmly in second place. Touting its webmail, the company says users see 55 percent less spam than Gmail users, which doesn’t change the perception that a Yahoo e-mail address seems dated.
Adding to its woes, Yahoo seems perpetually trying to figure out if it is a media company, a tech company, an advertising company or some odd hybrid.
That confusion and frustration led to today, where Yahoo’s new head of products Blake Irving, a Microsoft veteran just 100 days into his tenure at Yahoo, tried to explain to reporters what Yahoo is, what products it plans to release this fall, and how it plans to release changes faster.
The line-up includes a re-vamp of its e-mail client, a very pretty iPad app that will tie in with your Yahoo account to customize information for you, continuing improvement of its mobile plug-ins for mobile phones, and an integration with Twitter coming in June (!).
When questioned about what Yahoo needed to do to keep people from ditching the service over perceptions that it’s just not at the forefront, Irving responded, “We have to put the cool back in Yahoo.”
Perhaps most convincing was chief technical officer Raymie Stata, who was the chief architect of search and advertising. Without going too heavily into detail, he explained that now all of Yahoo’s many properties, including comments and clicks from users, were now all being poured into the same information pile.
That, he says, will let Yahoo use the same content optimization it uses on its front page (a pretty amazing piece of science work) on all of the sites.
While Irving called for faster iteration and change, Yahoo engineers and product managers will have to handle a Yahoo user base that doesn’t like change. When now-departed executive Tapan Bhat was in charge of the Yahoo home page, he told Wired.com that users would track down his number to complain about links moving different places on the homepage.
Yahoo Groups is experiencing similar problems now as it works on re-vamping the popular, but stale e-mail list service.
That means that Yahoo’s got to be willing to anger some of its user base in order to make its services feel new, while not driving users to quit in droves.
Meanwhile, it’s got to make outstanding add-ons for other companies’ mobile platforms, because unlike Google, Apple and Microsoft, it does not own one. In particular, Google services are so closely integrated into most Android phones that Yahoo has to scramble to work with carriers around the world to be added as a default app to keep from bleeding users. Yahoo argues its platform independence is an asset, especially in regions where phones are sold direct to consumers — not through carriers.
Yahoo’s strength has always been in being an editor for the web experience, which goes back to its roots as a hand-crafted directory of the internet. Now to stay relevant it needs to figure out how to pair its original content, its partnerships with Facebook, publishers and soon Twitter, the picks from its human editors and a sophisticated recommendation engine.
Given the immense amount of information on the web, the ever-increasing velocity of the news cycle, and our growing hunger to stay connected and informed, Yahoo has a chance to be increasingly useful, even if no one can actually define what Yahoo is.
That seems to be what Yahoo was trying to tell the press and the world it is striving to become, but the proof online is in the doing, not the describing.
Photo: Ryan Singel/Wired.com
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