NSFW: Never Mind The Bollocks – Why Carol Bartz Can't Say What Yahoo Is Now

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It’s Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, and while my American friends are out in the sun, celebrating some holiday or other – is this one Memorial Day or Labor Day or Arbor Day? – I’m confined to my hotel room, finishing the final edits of my book manuscript.

Specifically I’m editing a chapter that begins with me being thrown out of a Starbucks in Chicago for swearing on my cellphone. It was a strange – not unhilarious – episode, and one that caused me to consider the contrasting American and British attitudes towards profanity…

“The concept of ‘appropriateness’ is much more real to Americans than it is to Brits, despite us being the ones who are supposed to be stuffy and formal. I’ve noticed it a lot with swearing: while Brits of both genders will be quite happy, among friends, to use the word ‘fuck’ – as a verb, a noun and adjective or an adverb – a surprising number of Americans blanche at the idea. Rather they’d talk about ‘dropping the F bomb’ as if four letters were capable of levelling Nagasaki.”

And so it was this past week at TechCrunch Disrupt when Yahoo’s Carol Bartz now-infamously told Mike Arrington to “fuck off”. The remark was clearly something Bartz had prepared in advance, and at a British conference it would have been about as notable as a speaker wearing jeans rather than a suit. But in America the idea that a CEO – a female CEO no less – might resort to comedy foul language is headline news. Literally.

The swearing had the desired effect of course; becoming the meme of the conference – full of sound and fury, signifying nothing – and distracting from the real story: that the CEO of the third most visited site on the web was unable to concisely describe what her company actually does.

Mike highlighted this ridiculousness in a follow up post, putting the swearing controversy into perspective and focussing on the  difference between Bartz’ answer to the question “what is Yahoo?” and Tim Armstrong’s much snappier response for AOL. While Bartz rambled, Armstrong simply said “AOL is planning on being the largest high quality content producer for digital media”.

In Bartz’s defence, Armstrong’s answer was just as meaningless, skirting what AOL is and instead describing what he hopes it will one day become. Armstrong’s answer was accurate in the same way that I could accurately answer the question “Who is Paul Carr?” by saying “Paul Carr aims to be the multi-millionaire author of a slew of best-selling books, written between bouts of pornographic sex with Scarlet Johansson.” If wishing could make it so, Tim.

The truth is, while we may criticise her for her on-stage performance, “what is Yahoo?” is simply not a question that Carol Bartz is able to answer right now. No-one asks Google what it is, even though it does a million different things, because it does one thing – search – better than anyone else in the world. No-one asks Facebook what it does, because it does one thing – connecting friends – better than anyone else in the world. Yahoo doesn’t have that one thing – so while it might be everything, it’s also nothing.

So what should Yahoo’s one thing be?

Not search, obviously. That ship sailed long ago. It also shouldn’t be a portal, or a destination, or any other meaningless construction. Yes, a lot of people have Yahoo as their home page, but those people – by and large – simply don’t know any better. Carol can enthuse as much as she likes about her highly-personalised homepage widgets, but the next generation of Internet users won’t care. Facebook – or whatever comes next – will be their homepage; their content destination and everything in between. There’s nothing more personalised than friendships.

How about mobile? The company recently announced a partnership with Nokia, which sounds exciting but really only serves to underline how non-core mobile is to Yahoo’s competences. Also ‘mobile’ isn’t a service, or a product – rather it’s a way to deliver services or products.

Chat? Flickr? Blogging? Forums? No, no, no. Facebook has won that fight: Flickr might be the photo sharing choice of tool for the technorati, but for the vast majority of Internet users – particularly the young Internet users who Yahoo needs to lock in to guarantee its future – a photo simply doesn’t exist unless it’s uploaded to Facebook. Likewise chat, blogging, forums and all other aspects of user generated content are all ground that Yahoo has already lost, and can’t possibly win back.

What does that leave?

Ask any commentator, or entrepreneur or Investor and they’ll tell you that the hot business to be in right now is curation. There’s simply too much information – much of it user generated – flooding on to the web, and users are crying out for someone to sift and package it all in an intelligent and trustworthy way. That’s what Gilt Groupe or Groupon do for businesses, that’s what services like Quora do for information, that’s what our Twitter friends do for everything else. But while Gilt and Quora and even Twitter are still veritable newborns, Yahoo has been curating content – using real-life, professional human beings to sift through information – since the antediluvian days when Jerry Yang and David Filo posted their first link on “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web

The days of employing humans to curate links are over but  there remains one area in which Yahoo’s legacy of curation, audience, trusted brand and significant human resources could come together to do something better than anyone else in the world…

News.

Seriously.

Yahoo’s news product is excellent. Like Google, Yahoo offers a first-rate news aggregator – but unlike Google, the company actually has its own journalists contributing reporting to the mix. The result is a hybrid between aggregation, curation and traditional journalism, which makes Yahoo News arguably the most balanced online news source there is. Moreover, the company has spent years perfecting the use of online video for both news reporting and analysis. Take a few minutes to watch Yahoo Finance or Yahoo Sports and you’ll see some of the best (in terms of both production quality and content) programming available online; easily a match for the best that traditional broadcasting can offer.

And yet right now news and video languish in Yahoo’s overall portfolio; just one more thing that the company offers.

If Yahoo is seriously looking for the one thing that it could be the best in the world at, then news – specifically multi-media news – is a serious contender. CNN might have been the last generation’s “Most Trusted Name In News” but they just don’t have the innate understanding of the web that a company like Yahoo does. For most traditional broadcast or print news outlets, the concept of mixing together original reporting with aggregated content from other sources and the curational wisdom of the online crowds is utterly beyond their comprehension. The closest CNN has got to content aggregation is The Situation Room, while, when it comes to interactivity, even the mighty taxpayer-funded BBC hadn’t got much beyond reading out the occasional viewer email on screen.

Yahoo on the other hand understand innately how people use the web – they have billions of users whose behaviour they track; they know curation and aggregation; they’ve proved they know news and they certainly know video. By combining these resources, and then delivering the results through their hugely visible platform (yes, including mobile), they could blow CNN – and everyone else – out of the water.

At dinner the other night, I joked with a friend (who happens to work at Yahoo) that we might one day see a Yahoo journalist asking a question in the Whitehouse. That need not be a joke. Yahoo has the resources to hire hundreds of journalists – real journalists, not just the hungry children who churn out posts for Associated Content – and set them to work covering serious stories. Then it can integrate that coverage even more tightly with its news aggregation product, and at the same time expand the company’s flagship finance and sports video programming into politics, global affairs, entertainment and everything else that’s going on in the world. Mix in user-generated curation, courtesy of their billions of annual visitors, and you have the makings of a very large and very trusted online news and content network.

Put another way, Tim Armstrong may say that “AOL is planning on being the largest high quality content producer for digital media”, but Yahoo is in a position to actually make that happen.

But of course that’s just one idea. There are a dozen other possible roads that Bartz could take Yahoo, and thanks to the company’s sheer size she can still afford to take the time to explore them all. The critical thing is that she stops trying (and failing) to explain the dozens of things Yahoo does now, and instead settles on the one thing that Yahoo is going to do next. If she can do that then Yahoo might still be thriving in three years time.

If not then it’s — what’s the word, Carol?

Fucked.

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