Tag Archives: Stanford

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.

Why Social Network Sites May Fail

Look at a social networking site lie Yaari and you can see where the social networking phenomenon may fail, simply by abusing the trust of its users.

Sites like LinkedIn, Plaxo etc rely on expanding quickly by offering a useful service: trawling your address book to find friends and contacts who use the same service. We’ve gotten used to this, and it’s a great way to build a network quickly if you sign up for a new service.

But any service that uses this needs to stress privacy, and put control in the hands of users. Plaxo learned this a few years back. Spam a user’s contact list without them realising and you invite a firestorm of opprobrium on your head.

But surprisingly some services still do it. And in so doing they risk alienating users from what makes Web 2.0 tick: the easy meshing of networks—your address book, your Facebook buddies, your LinkedIn network—to make online useful.

Take Yaari, a network built by two Stanford grads which has for the past two years abused the basic tenets of privacy in an effort to build scale.

What happens is this.

You’ll receive an email from a contact:

 image

It’s an invitation from a “friend” which

  • gives you no way to check out the site without signing up. The only two links (apart from an abuse reporting email address at the bottom) take you to the signup page.
  • neither link allows you to check out your “friend”  and his details before you sign up.

If you do go to the sign up page you’ll be asked to give your name and email address:

image

Below the email address is the reassuring message:

Your email is private and will stay that way.

But scroll down to below the create my account button and you’ll see this:

By registering for Yaari and agreeing to the Terms of Use, you authorize Yaari to send an email notification to all the contacts listed in the address book of the email address you provide during registration. The email will notify your friends that you have registered for Yaari and will encourage them to register for the site. Yaari will never store your email password or login to your email account without your consent. If you do not want Yaari to send an email notification to your email contacts, do not register for Yaari.

In short, by signing up for Yaari you’ve committed yourself, and all the people in your address book, to receiving spam from Yaari that appears to come from your email address. (Here’s the bit from the terms: “Invitation emails will be sent on member’s behalf, with the ‘from’ address set as member’s email address.”)

You should also expect to receive further spam from Yaari, according to the terms:

MEMBERS CONSENT TO RECEIVE COMMERCIAL E-MAIL MESSAGES FROM YAARI, AND ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT THEIR EMAIL ADDRESSES AND OTHER PERSONAL INFORMATION MAY BE USED BY YAARI FOR THE PURPOSE OF INITIATING COMMERCIAL E-MAIL MESSAGES.

In other words, anyone signing up for Yaari is commiting both themselves and everyone else in their address book to receiving at least one item of spam from the company. Users complain that Yaari doesn’t stop at one email; it bombards address books with follow-up emails continually.

Needless to say, all this is pretty appalling. But what’s more surprising is that Yaari has been doing this for a while. I’ve trawled complaints from as far back as 2006. This despite the company being U.S.-based. I’m surprised the FTC hasn’t taken an interest.

So who’s behind the site? This article lists two U.S.-born Indians, Prerna Gupta and Parag Chordia, and quotes Gupta as saying, back in 2006, that to preserve the integrity of the network access is restricted to the right kind of Indian youth. I’m not young, I’m not Indian, and I’m probably not the right kind, so clearly that goal has been abandoned.

Here are some more details of the two founders.

Gupta, who is 26, is an economics major who graduated in 2005, was working for a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley called Summit Partners until 2005. Her facebook profile is here; her LinkedIn profile is here. According to this website she once won the Ms Asia Oklahoma pageant (her hometown is listed as Shawnee in Oklahoma, although she lives in Atlanta.

Chordia, chief technology officer at Yaari, has a PhD in computer music, and is currently assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, according to his LinkedIn profile. His facebook profile is here.

There’s a video of them here. An interview with Gupta last year indicates that they’re going hell for leather for size:

We are focused on growing our user base and becoming India’s largest social networking site within the next two years. Our goal for the next year is to become one of India’s Top 10 Internet destinations.

What’s interesting is that nearly every site that mentions Yaari and allows comments contains sometimes angry complaints from users. In that sense Web 2.0 is very effective in getting the word out. Unfortunately if Yaari and its founders continue to commit such egregious abuses of privacy, we can’t be sure many people will trust such websites long enough for the power of networking sites to be properly realised.

(I’ve sought comment from Gupta, which I’ll include in this post when received.)

Publishers Upset By Google Initiative

Did Google check first with publishers before announcing its digital library initiative. Nature reports that publishers are irritated  because they weren’t:

Late last year, Google, based in Mountain View, California, announced a decade-long project to scan millions of volumes at the universities of Harvard, Stanford, Michigan and Oxford, as well as the New York Public Library. The resulting archive would allow computer users worldwide to search the texts online. But some publishers complain that they weren’t consulted by Google, and that scanning library collections could be illegal.

Not everyone agrees: The story quotes Peter Kosewski, director of publications and communications at Harvard University Library, as saying the library believes that the way Google intends to handle copyright works is consistent with the law. Harvard is carrying out a pilot with Google on 40,000 titles before making a decision on digitizing its entire 15-million-volume collection. “We have a number of questions that will be answered by the pilot project, and that includes copyright issues,” he says. “We think it is a great programme Google has put together.”