The Lost World of Yahoo
This piece was written for a commentary on the BBC World Service Business Daily about Jerry Yang’s decision to resign as CEO.
Back in the early days of the World Wide Web there was really only one name. Yahoo. You could tell it was big because it was what you’d type in your browser to see if your computer was connected to the Internet.
Without fail: Yahoo.com. It’s been around since 1994, since Jerry Yang and David Filo, two grad students at Stanford, built a list of interesting websites, a sort of yellow pages for the Internet. They called it, first, Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web, and then Yahoo. By the end of 1994 it had a million hits. By 1996 it had gone public.
And, I reckon, it’s been slightly lost ever since.
Not that you’d know that from the figures. It’s the most popular website in the world. Nearly half that traffic is actually email, according to Alexa, a website that tracks this kind of thing. Nearly everyone on the planet, it seems, has a Yahoo email address.
But there’s also other stuff: search, news, auctions, finance, groups, chat, games, movies, sports. And Yahoo has been pretty consistent for the 14 years of its life: If you look at its homepage, the place where you’d land if you typed in yahoo.com, it wouldn’t look that different in 1995 to what it looked like in 2005. The familiar red Yahoo logo at the top of the page, a little search box, and then some links to directories.
But since then things have got more complicated. The guys at Google made a better search engine, so much so that their name has become a verb, a shorthand way of saying “look up something or someone on the Internet.”
That kind of left Yahoo behind. So far, I’ve not heard Yahoo used as a verb, or a noun, at least in a positive way. And Google also figured out how to make money from it, which stole another bit of Yahoo’s thunder.
But it hasn’t stopped there. Internet speeds have got faster. We’re now connected most of the time, via computer or cellphone. Upstart bloggers have toppled big media conglomerates. So now all the big players—Microsoft, Google, Yahoo—are not quite sure what they are: Media companies? Advertising companies? Software services company? A mix of all three?
So it’s no surprise that Jerry Yang has been unable to articulate what, exactly Yahoo itself is. If you’re not sure what your company is, never mind that you founded it, you shouldn’t be sitting in the CEO’s chair.
The truth is that there are two Yahoos. Ask an ordinary user and they’ll know about Yahoo. The email program. The instant messenger. The news portal. To millions of people Yahoo is comfortable and familiar.
Ask a geek and they’ll talk about another Yahoo: all the cool stuff the company engineers are doing. Pipes, which lets you mash data together in interesting ways. Fireeagle, that blends together information about where you are. And there’s the stuff they’ve bought that most people don’t even realise belongs to Yahoo: delicious bookmarks, for example, or Flickr photos.
People may be down on Yahoo right now, and the share price isn’t pretty. But it’s still a big brand, known around the world. And, despite their frustrations, beloved by many geeks.
One day someone will come along and find a way to package all this stuff together, or sell bits of it off. Then Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web will find its way again. It just doesn’t look like that person is going to be Jerry himself.