How Yahoo Is Fighting To Stay Relevant In The Mobile-First World

Yahoo’s business has always been about using the latest tech to capture people’s attention with interesting content. They were many people’s first real home page on the web.

Before search and social, you’d go to Yahoo to see links worth checking out. In the interim periods of change in consumer tech, they’ve adapted their product strategies to follow their model, with points of success and failure. In a recent visit to Yahoo’s Sunnyvale headquarters, we got a better look at how the company is adapting the mobile-first world.

Yahoo’s efforts in mobile over the last several years have focused on improving product by bringing in new talent and technology through acquisition. For instance, Yahoo News Digest (built from acquiree Summly’s tech) aims to keep a broad audience informed with the top news of the day, just like the Yahoo home page before it. But the app’s updates are partially algorithmically written, reducing the need for human curators.

On the user experience front, company’s mobile team has cranked out award-winning apps that offer more pleasant ways to present the information and news people check every day. Yahoo VP of Design Albert Song says one of the most important facets of the team’s work is creating a design language that incorporates Apple’s “flat” iOS features and Google’s Material Design so as to feel native on major platforms, yet unique enough that users realize they’re in a Yahoo app.

Yahoo Weather

Yahoo Weather is useful and beautiful, but it has to compete with Apple and Google’s offerings as well as smaller developers with premium apps.

Looking across its offerings, Yahoo has hundreds of millions of people looking at content in these apps. That attention is valuable to advertisers — but less valuable than attention given on platforms where advertisers can target specific audiences.

That’s because Yahoo is fighting for attention and thus ad dollars, with social behemoths like Facebook. People check their favorite social feeds (and increasingly, messaging apps) on their phones tens of times a day, for minutes at a time. Because they already capture so much attention, these services can bundle in more kinds of content to get users to stay around longer.

That’s the game Facebook is playing with news and video, as populating the feed with articles from publications and auto-playing video makes its users less likely to leave for a separate news reader app or YouTube (assuming it can serve up relevant content).

Yahoo’s purchase of Tumblr gave it a social platform with more than 400 million users generating and consuming plenty of content, but like its other advertising-supported businesses, Yahoo doesn’t quite have the social or interest graph that could allow for lucrative ad targeting to the extent that Facebook or Pinterest do.

While Yahoo’s mobile product and design teams build applications and services that people find increasingly useful, Yahoo is also working at making the time that its users spend in apps more valuable. In the last year, it’s begun rolling out native ad formats like app install posts on Tumblr and its other properties, but it’s starting from a very low point: Less than two years ago, Yahoo described its mobile revenue as “not material.”

Yahoo Senior Vice President of Mobile and Emerging Products Adam Cahan told TechCrunch during our visit that native ads align well with the company’s range of products and will show up in more forms as Yahoo’s apps evolve.

As all of this content Yahoo serves increasingly includes things like auto-playing video on mobile, the company is also ramping up engineering efforts to deliver a better user experience through technical improvements behind the scenes. Just as Facebook wants to reduce apparent article load times by pre-loading content in its app, Yahoo Mobile VP Benoit Schillings says the company is looking at building  logic into the client running on a user’s phone so that the news, sports, or social updates are already there when a user opens an app.

With 1,000 people working toward improving Yahoo’s mobile product offerings, hundreds of millions of users and aligned incentives between its apps and monetization model, there are plenty of ways to make the case that the Sunnyvale-based company is still a contender in the mobile landscape.

But without a software platform of its own or a detailed graph of its users’ social graphs or interests, Yahoo is fighting an uphill battle that requires faster and sustained innovation on seemingly every front. It’s certainly fun to watch.