Yahoo today is rolling a major revamp of its homepage and flagship mobile application with a focus on offering a more personalized, social experience, where readers can find stories they like, comment and debate the day’s news, and track stories of interest. The move is meant to better reflect how consumers are engaging with and reading news on mobile devices, but it’s also an attempt to shift the conversations that take place on social media sites back to Yahoo itself.
The revamp comes at a time when more consumers than ever are reading the day’s news on their smartphones. Notes Yahoo SVP Simon Khalaf, usage of mobile news and magazine applications increased 141 percent in 2015.
These days, even major tech companies are attempting to carve out their own niche in the news reading space. In addition to Google News, Apple debuted a native News app in iOS 9, and Microsoft, through its internal R&D group Microsoft Garage, launched its own competitor just this week. There are also news apps from startups like Flipboard and SmartNews, as well as those from publishers themselves. Plus, many consumers now track the day’s news through social media, like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, which all cater to publishers in their own way.
Yahoo, naturally, wants to better compete in this space, too.
The changes were driven by mobile trends, Khalaf tells us, but have also been applied to the Yahoo website.
For starters, Yahoo says that you’ll no longer have to open stories in multiple browser tabs, but can instead scroll through related stories inline. It has also replaced an earlier personalization tool – the plus sign (+), which told the site you wanted to see more stories like the current one in the future – with a more immediate favoriting mechanism: a heart.
By clicking the heart, you’ll be shown more related stories underneath each article.
However, Khalaf notes that Yahoo’s ability to deduce what’s considered a “related” story has improved with this update.
For example, in the past, a story about Tina Fey’s return to SNL to again mock Sarah Palin may have pointed you to other stories about “Tina Fey” or “SNL.” But following the update, Yahoo’s algorithms should understand that you’re also potentially interested in topics like the U.S. elections, GOP news, and Palin’s endorsement of Trump.
“We’re clustering the articles and understanding the topics you’d be interested in. That gives us a broader view into your interests,” says Khalaf. This can also help to deliver different angles on the same story to readers, he notes.
In addition, Yahoo will actively encourage its readers to spend more time on the site and in its app discussing and debating the stories presented. That seems counter to the current trend which sees users taking their opinions off-site to places like Facebook and Twitter.
And it reflects a desire on Yahoo’s side to be seen as a social platform, not just a news aggregator.
“A lot of people shut down their comments…I understand that, but I think we want to actually encourage the conversation, not stifle the conversation,” Khalaf explains. “We do have technology to elevate and empower the healthy debates, instead of shedding light on the unnecessary name-calling that exists.”
That seems like a shot across the bow of the currently troubled Twitter, which has been slammed in the past from not doing enough to shut down cyberbullying and abuse on its platform.
But Yahoo’s commenting system itself (which relies on voting comments up and down) is not new, and it’s certainly filled with…um…choice language, let’s say. Commenters today just write words like “dumba$$” or “truck” in place of profanity. And they regularly refer to article subjects in offensive ways, calling them names like: ignorant, dumb, ghetto, disgusting, mental, stupid, a “tramp,” nasty, and more. (These examples were pulled from one single comments section, in fact!)
There’s a reason why many publishers pulled the plug on the commenting cess pool and let social media claim the peanut gallery for its own.
But on updated Yahoo site, comments are first-class citizens again. The site will now surface comments in-line, meaning they’ll appear right below article when the comments icon is clicked. If you click the option to “view all” you’ll be able to scroll through the rest, and leave your own. (A Yahoo account, of course, is required for that).
Finally, Yahoo will let you track stories of interest, which is useful when trying to stay on top of breaking news. On the web, you can click a “follow” button then click on a bell icon at the top-right to see those stories you’re following when there are updates. On mobile, you’ll be sent push notifications.
“The day when people just consume news is gone,” says Khalaf. “It’s not about aggregating the news…people want to converse around media. That’s what we provide.”