Paul Simon wrote, "Every generation throws a hero at the pop charts." Now it's Marissa Mayer's turn to try to make Yahoo!'s chart pop. This will be hard because few tech companies are able to sustain value creation much past their IPOs.
What strategic path for Yahoo! satisfies the following important requirements?
- Solves a keenly felt customer / user / audience / human problem?
- Fits within but doesn't totally overlap what other competitors provide?
- Builds off things Yahoo! has / does well?
- Fits Ms. Mayer's experiences, so she's playing from a position of strength and confidence?
- As a consequence of all this, will bring advertisers back at premium prices?
Yahoo!'s company profile is a little buzzwordy but offers a potential point of departure. What Yahoo! says:
"Our vision is to deliver your world, your way. We do that by using technology, insights, and intuition to create deeply personal digital experiences that keep more than half a billion people connected to what matters the most to them – across devices, on every continent, in more than 30 languages. And we connect advertisers to the consumers who matter to them most – the ones who will build their businesses – through our unique combination of Science + Art + Scale."
What Cesar infers:
Yahoo! is a filter.
Here are some big things the Internet helps us do:
Every one of these functions has an 800 lb. gorilla, and a few aspirants, attached to it:
- Find -- Google
- Connect -- Facebook, LinkedIn
- Share -- Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo!/Flickr (well, for the moment...)
- Shop -- Amazon, eBay
- Work -- Microsoft, Google, GitHub
- Learn -- Wikipedia, Khan Academy
- Argue -- Wordpress, Typepad, [insert major MSM digital presence here]
- Relax -- Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify
- Filter -- ...
Um, filter... Filter. There's a flood of information out there. Who's doing a great job of filtering it for me? Google alerts? Useful but very crude. Twitter? I browse my followings for nuggets, but sometimes these are hard to parse from the droppings. Facebook? Sorry friends, but my inner sociopath complains it has to work too hard to sift the news I can use from the River of Life.
Filtering is still a tough, unsolved problem, arguably the problem of the age (or at least it was last year when I said so). The best tool I've found for helping me build filters is Yahoo! Pipes. (Example)
As far as I can tell, Pipes has remained this slightly wonky tool in Yahoo's bazaar suite of products. Nerds like me get a lot of leverage from the service, but it's a bit hard to explain the concept, and the semi-programmatic interface is powerful but definitely not for the general public.
Now, what if Yahoo! were to embrace filtering as its core proposition, and build off the Pipes idea and experience under the guidance of Google's own UI guru -- the very same Ms. Mayer, hopefully applying the lessons of iGoogle's rise and fall -- to make it possible for its users to filter their worlds more effectively? If you think about it, there are various services out there that tackle individual aspects of the filtering challenge: professional (e.g. NY Times, Vogue, Car and Driver), social (Facebook, subReddits), tribal (online communities extending from often offline affinities), algorithmic (Amazon-style collaborative filtering), sponsored (e.g., coupon sites). No one is doing a good job of pulling these all together and allowing me to tailor their spews to my life. Right now it's up to me to follow Gina Trapani's Lifehacker suggestion, which is to use Pipes.
OK so let's review:
- Valuable unsolved problem for customers / users: check.
- Fragmented, undominated competitive space: check.
- Yahoo! has credibly assets / experience: check.
- Marissa Mayer plays from position of strength and experience: check.
- Advertisers willing to pay premium prices, in droves: ...
Well, let's look at this a bit. I'd argue that a good filter is effectively a "passive search engine". Basically through the filters people construct -- effectively "stored searches" -- they tell you what it is they are really interested in, and in what context and time they want it. With cookie-based targeting under pressure on multiple fronts, advertisers will be looking for impression inventories that provide search-like value propositions without the tracking headaches. Whoever can do this well could make major bank from advertisers looking for an alternative to the online ad biz Hydra (aka Google, Facebook, Apple, plus assorted minor others).
Savvy advertisers and publishers will pooh-pooh the idea that individual Pipemakers would be numerous enough or consistent enough on their own to provide the reach that is the reason Yahoo! is still in business. But I think there's lots of ways around this. For one, there's already plenty of precedent at other media companies for suggesting proto-Pipes -- usually called "channels", Yahoo! calls them "sites" (example), and they have RSS feeds. Portals like Yahoo!, major media like the NYT, and universities like Harvard suggest categories, offer pre-packaged RSS feeds, and even give you the ability to roll your own feed out of their content. The problem is that it's still marketed as RSS, which even in this day and age is still a bit beyond for most folks. But if you find a more user-friendly way to "clone and extend" suggested Pipes, friends' Pipes, sponsored Pipes, etc., you've got a start.
Check? Lots of hand-waving, I know. But what's true is that Yahoo! has suffered from a loss of a clear identity. And the path to re-growing its value starts with fixing that problem.
Good luck Marissa!