Ok Seriously, What Is Yahoo?

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The video above shows how two public company CEOs – Yahoo’s Carol Bartz and AOL’s Tim Armstrong – answered the first question I asked each of them during our interviews at TechCrunch Disrupt earlier this week: “What is Yahoo/AOL?”

The contrast in coherence is staggering.

Bartz:

What is Yahoo?…Listen Yahoo is a great company that is very, very strong in content for its users, uses amazing technology to serve up what increasingly we think is going to be the web of one. For instance, on our today module in the front page, every 5 minutes we have 32,000 different variations of that module. So you don’t even know what I’m seeing in fact we serve a million different front page modules a day and that’s just through content optimization. And that’s just the beginning…Customized because we know the things you’re interested in. Maybe you don’t like light entertainment maybe you like a certain sports team, etc., etc. And our click through rate went up twice. So the point is, people come to us to find out what is going on with the world in a very nice quick fashion to do their communications, email, messanger, check-in on their teens. We all know about Yahoo finance. It’s a places where you can just get it together. It’s collated for you, it’s all the things as you’re moving, you can even get your social information there. Everybody moves through many websites in a day, Yahoo is one they always stop at.

Armstrong:

AOL is planning on being the largest high quality content producer for digital media.

The one thing that everyone remembers from my interview with Bartz was when she told me to fuck off near the end of the talk. I’ll talk more on that in a post next week, but that was completely overblown – neither of us took it seriously on stage and after the talk there was no ill will at all.

The parts most people haven’t watched yet were what fascinated me. I want to understand what Yahoo is. What their core goals are. What they think they can win at. And how they can accomplish that via their product organization. I’ve wanted to know this for two years. And I still don’t know.

At different times over the last few years Yahoo has described itself as a platform company, a content company or an advertising company. Sometimes they talk about how important social is to the Yahoo experience. Other times they don’t. “Local” is another term that’s often included in their core definition.

Nearly every public interview with CEO Carol Bartz, and before her Jerry Yang, has started with the same question – “What is Yahoo?” And the company has been criticized for being unable to answer that question coherently in any of those interviews:

May 2008 – CEO Jerry Yang: Yang was not prepared for perhaps the one question that every CEO should be ready to answer at all times: “What is the business of Yahoo?” He was all over the place. He said their core focus included “home page, mail, search, and mobile.” He also said “We can’t be all things to all people. We have become much more focused,” before taking about other areas of focus at Yahoo, including advertising, social networking and their new open strategy.

November 2008 – CEO Jerry Yang: A CEO that still can’t clearly state the core goals. Yang, slouched on stage and devoid of energy, alternated between calling Yahoo a platform company and a destination site. But he also said that Yahoo intends to remain competitive with Google in search, despite the vast differences in resources that the two companies can put towards research.

May 2009 – New CEO Carol Bartz: What is Yahoo? That’s easy, says Bartz. We’re the place that everyone comes to every day. “We’re the place where people find relevant contextual information about things they care about.” We have a global reach with a local feel, says Bartz, noting that Yahoo is increasingly more focused on local. “People should see their high school game Flip videos on Yahoo Sports.”

May 2010 – CEO Carol Bartz: “What is Yahoo?…Listen Yahoo is a great company that is very, very strong in content for its users, uses amazing technology to serve up what increasingly we think is going to be the web of one. For instance, on our today module in the front page, every 5 minutes we have 32,000 different variations of that module. So you don’t even know what I’m seeing in fact we serve a million different front page modules a day and that’s just through content optimization. And that’s just the beginning…Customized because we know the things you’re interested in. Maybe you don’t like light entertainment maybe you like a certain sports team, etc., etc. And our click thru rate went up twice. So the point is, people come to us to find out what is going on with the world in a very nice quick fashion to do their communications, email, messanger, check-in on their teens. We all know about Yahoo finance. It’s a places where you can just get it together. “

Remember that Bartz was paid $47.2 million by Yahoo in 2009 – top among all Standard & Poor’s 500 companies. She’s being paid very well for her job. This is a question that she must be ready to answer, to the press, to shareholders, to the world and, most importantly, to her employees. Right now Yahoo doesn’t know what they are or where they’re going. And until they do, they can’t become whatever it is that they want to be.

The Reuters editorial in the New York Times on the interview was fascinating as well (see second half of article), although they too focus too much on the swearing incident in my opinion.

So tell me below in the comments. What is Yahoo?

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