Yahoo: From Dot-Com Survivor to Web 2.0 Powerhouse

 
 
By Ryan Naraine  |  Posted 2005-11-23
 
 
 

Yahoo: From Dot-Com Survivor to Web 2.0 Powerhouse


Through a series of clever acquisitions and in-house creations, Yahoo Inc. has transformed itself from a dot-com survivor into a Web 2.0 powerhouse driven by blogs, podcasts and other forms of user-generated social media.

The 10-year-old company is staying true to its search engine roots, but with the aggressive embrace of new technologies—from RSS (Really Simple Syndication) to contextual tagging—Yahoo has created a niche for itself in the world of external content aggregation.

"This embrace of the culture of participation goes back a long way," says Bradley Horowitz, Director of Technology Development at Yahoo Search.

"If you look at the roots of Yahoo, it was two guys sitting in a Stanford dorm room manually organizing what was out there on the Web."

"Were not jumping on a Web 2.0 bandwagon. Weve always been about providing tools for users to generate and share content. You can go back to the early days of Yahoo Groups and GeoCities," Horowitz said in an interview with Ziff Davis Internet News.

Horowitz, like other Yahoo executives, steers clear of the Web 2.0 hype but theres no mistaking the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based companys intent.

Yahoo turns tables on syndicates. Click here to read more.

For starters, just look at Yahoos brand new My Web 2.0 beta, a social bookmarking tool that uses RSS and tagging to sort and shuttle content between socially-connected users.

Accessible via the Yahoo Toolbar, the service lets surfers save and tag Web pages for sharing with others.

"The next big breakthrough will be social search," Horowitz declared. "Were investing heavily in this."

With My Web 2.0, Horowitz believes Yahoo can "democratize the process" of ranking search relevance, a subtle tweak at rival Googles acclaimed PageRank technology.

"Why should the privilege of ranking the Internet be limited to just Webmasters? Why not let users determine that for themselves. Why not determine search relevance on a per-case and per-community basis?"

The idea is simple. Let the user bookmark and sort pages by title, URL, tags, keywords, name, date or popularity. Once a bookmark is saved, it becomes available for others within the users social circle, a concept that creates a massive base of eyeballs pushing content to each other.

Flickr—photo-sharing on steroids

Another big coup for Yahoo was the acquisition of Flickr, a photo-sharing service built around a tight-knit community of users.

Flickr lets users upload digital images from camera phones and computers and set up photo albums for sharing with the community via blogs and RSS.

Flickr helped popularize the idea of using tags to trigger random associations of images and the result is a slick, wildly popular tool used by millions.

Since the acquisition, Yahoo has already meshed Flickr with its Yahoo 360 social network and a new blog search tool launched within the Yahoo News property.

Interestingly, Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake now heads up the My Web 2.0 social search product, a clear indication of Yahoos plans for aggressive cross-integration of multiple products.

Horowitz looks at Flickr and sees endless possibilities and, although he is careful to avoid discussing future product plans, there are hints that the Flickr technology can be extended to power things like user-generated audio and video uploads.

Next Page: Yahoo 360 and RSS.

Yahoo 360 and RSS


"The Flickr deal was huge because it gave Yahoo instant street cred with bloggers," says Rafat Ali, managing partner at PaidContent.org, a site that tracks the economics of content.

"That credibility is important in the Web 2.0 world, where the user is in total control of the content."

Yahoo 360 and the RSS revolution

The Flickr purchase was the perfect complement to the Yahoo 360 social network, a service that combined a push-button blogging tool with the companys existing photo storage, Internet radio and instant messaging products.

Yahoo 360 sets up a circle of social connections where users can mix, match and distribute content to each other from a single space.

At the core of Yahoo 360 is the blogging service, which helps to power yet another spoke in the Web 2.0 wheel—the MyYahoo RSS aggregator.

Scott Gatz, senior director of personalization products at Yahoo, says embrace of RSS across multiple Yahoo properties was among the most important strategic decisions made by senior executives.

Gatz, who is responsible for all things RSS at Yahoo, has seen the content syndication technology move into the mainstream, giving Yahoo new and intriguing ways to let users create personalized media that can be accessed in multiple ways, whether on the Web or on mobile devices.

Click here to read about Yahoos foray into social commerce.

"We started publishing RSS feeds around the middle of 2003 with a plan to take RSS to the masses. We just had a few thousand users but once we got the MyYahoo aggregator out the door, things just exploded," Gatz said in an interview.

"Now, were talking millions and millions of users consuming content via RSS on MyYahoo. It is the number one browser-based RSS reader today."

Gatz declined to divulge usage stats, but of the 25 million MyYahoo users it is believed that more than one-quarter are consuming RSS feeds in the MyYahoo aggregator.

"One of the key things for us is to be an open platform. We want to help consumers get what they want, how they want it.

"User-created content fits in a huge way. Theres an immense amount of content becoming available on Web and the majority is user-generated," Gatz explained.

"Theyre creating blogs, uploading digital photos, creating podcasts, posting on message boards. Ultimately, theres a nonstop conversation happening on the web with groups of people sharing their interests. The idea is to make it real simple for this conversation to happen," he said.

Intrigued and encouraged by the explosion of RSS in the mainstream, Yahoo extended the technology and created the MediaRSS extension to allow content producers to submit audio material to its Yahoo Audio Search engine.

"We talk about openness a lot here at Yahoo," Gatz said of the companys Web 2.0 strategy. "When you think of the Web and where things are going, there are three important audiences: the consumers, the publishers and the advertisers.

"The lines are blurred these days because the consumer is now the publisher and the publisher is becoming the advertiser."

The blurring of those lines has created new ways to make—and share—revenues. The companys ambitious plan is to use the YPN (Yahoo Publishers Network), a product that grew out of the acquisition of Overture, to distribute advertising across blogs and social networks and split the profits with the user community.

"As a company, were helping everyone to make money from all these conversations that are happening," Gatz explained.

"Anyone with a blog on Yahoo 360 can use YPN to publish ads. The focus is to turn consumers into publishers, give them the tools to express themselves and get new places to push relevant, contextual ads."

Future tools and applications

The RSS-powered tools are coming out of Yahoo at a rapid clip. A new podcast directory service lets users launch, search and browse audio content.

"Weve watched the podcast community grow and thats another area we are excited about," Gatz said.

Could video blogging and video uploads be on the cards next? For competitive reasons, Gatz and Horowitz declined to discuss future product plans but when the company looks at the Flickr community concept, its not a stretch to imagine a simplified video sharing service on the horizon.

"We can Flickr-ize anything, if you think about it," Horowitz offered. Its a straightforward extrapolation. We can turn Flickr into video upload without too much work. We already have that Flickr community and we can extend that in various directions."

Yahoo cozies up to bloggers. Click here to read more.

The Yahoo Mail product is also undergoing a major makeover using technology acquired from Oddpost. Yahoo Mail now becomes a browser-based Outlook clone with a slick user interface.

Then there is Konfabulator, another clever acquisition that led to the launch of Yahoo Widgets.

Konfabulator makes a JavaScript run-time engine that allows users to create "Widgets" that perform simple tasks. Widgets can be used as browser-less gateways into Yahoos network of content, including those generated by millions of users.

"The world of Web 2.0 is driven by distribution. All these acquisitions and products fit together in a thematic way," Horowitz said. "Its very easy to do because theyre all standards-based. Its more platform oriented and RSS-enabled in very interesting ways,"

Could there be a Yahoo Browser in the works?

"Thats a very big question. Obviously, most of our users are coming through the browser today, but that will change as the mobile devices get smarter," Horowitz said.

"More people are beginning to access Yahoo through mobile phones and set top boxes," he added. "Were paying attention to everything thats happening in the browser world, especially around Firefox and IE … I cant speak to specific product plans but were looking at everything."

Horowitz continued: "We have a top-down mandate from the senior-most levels of the company to be an open platform based on industry standards. We dont want to be a walled garden. Instead, we want to facilitate people to be creative on the Web."

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