Beauty and startups: Yahoo!’s desperate trek back from irrelevance

Yahoo Headquarters

Yahoo Headquarters

Back in the 90s, the name Yahoo! was synonymous with the web and possibly all things internet-related. It was a shining example of what the web was, what it could be and how it should be experienced. If you weren’t itching to check your Yahoo! Mail you were over at Netscape exploring life on the net. It was the golden age of the internet and it was how I got introduced to it.

In those early days when I clicked onto the web eagerly awaiting for my mail to load, if someone had said that there would be a day where I associated distrust with a Yahoo! email address and referred to the company as an “ailing” internet giant, I would have laughed. Yahoo!’s dominance of the web seemed to be infinite then and the company was shaping how we interacted online. But as it turns out, nothing about the web is powerful forever, and dominance is finite.

The Sunnyvale company has seen rather turbulent times in its recent history. CEOs have come and gone very quickly and the company has lost much of its popularity among the very tech savvy audiences it created and bred. Things are changing it seems: with the hiring of Marissa Mayer as CEO, the company has seen new vigor and a string of acquisitions and lots and lots of headlines. But what does it all mean?

A future full of personalisation, daily apps and beauty

When Mayer eventually disclosed her plans for Yahoo! she said its future would be very personalized, and content and mobile focused. Speaking earlier this year at a World Economic Forum event in Davos, she stated that Yahoo!’s job was to order the web for users on desktop and mobile.

“With the web becoming so vast, there’s so much content and there’s so much social context, and now with mobile, there’s so much location context and activity context,” she said. “How do you pull all that together?” In Yahoo!’s eyes, through “a feed of information that is ordered. The web is ordered for you and is also on your mobile phone.”

Since taking over Yahoo!, Mayer has revamped some of the company’s offerings, cut out a fair number of its apps and introduced users to some beautiful experiences. For instance, the company’s weather app, launched earlier this year, plugs into Flickr by pulling user photos to help depict the current weather. Flickr has always been one of Yahoo!’s best products and its revamp has been a welcomed change that users have been waiting for.

The mission is to make Flickr desirable by making it beautiful, easy to use and mobile. So Mayer made it so:

“…we’re thrilled to take Flickr even further with a beautiful, completely re-imagined experience that puts photos front and center,” she wrote when the revamped site launched. “When it comes to photography, technology and its limits shouldn’t hinder the experience. So we’re also giving our Flickr users one terabyte of space — for free.”

Yahoo Weather and Flickr

Flickr truly is a breath of fresh air and quite mesmerizing. Its simplicity of use and effortless beauty rivals that of Instagram. It seems Yahoo! decided to allow the extraordinary talents of photographers to explode on the well designed site and app. This beauty ties in seamlessly into its weather app, this app makes checking the weather a stunning experience, it allows to explore cities not just the climate. That being said, Flickr’s architecture feels like its creaking underneath the beauty, search, set management, browsing and relevance are still an issue.

And with those two apps it became obvious that Yahoo! has gotten into the business of beauty. Every app that has been released since Mayer joined has emphasised simplicity, a lesson from her Google days no doubt. Even Mail looks quite tempting these days, a tad Gmail(ish) but tempting still, and that is saying something.

There is a freshness about the company that means die-hard fans like my father and sister are beginning to feel that their dedication is paying off.

It seems that Yahoo! is finally thinking about providing its users with an experience rather than a just a web service that happens to have other stuff too. Changes like these harken good tidings for the company. They tell the world that it is finally ready to get back to the table it help build. But is it too late? There are more dominant, more liked and wildly successful companies that have been succeeding at this for a while now: Google, Facebook and Instagram.

In startups we trust: a tale of many acquisitions

Yahoo! has a lot of money, which is odd because its stocks aren’t that great, and it has been on a buying spree that would put Becky Bloomwood to shame. It has spent a lot of money on Tumblr, Summly,, Loki Studios, GhostBird Software, Stamped and OnTheAir. The company has bought around 14 companies in the last year, double what it acquired between 2010 and mid 2012. I suppose that’s what happens when you sell off some your stake in a rather profitable Alibaba.

When you look at the types of companies that Mayer’s Yahoo! is buying it is clear that the company is prepping itself for a social, mobile and content-driven future quite in line with the CEO’s plans. When Yahoo! announced its acquisition of Tumblr, Mayer said that the blogging platform was “redefining creative expression online”:

On many levels, Tumblr and Yahoo! couldn’t be more different, but, at the same time, they couldn’t be more complementary. Yahoo is the internet’s original media network. Tumblr is the internet’s fastest-growing media frenzy. Both companies are homes for brands — established and emerging. And, fundamentally, Tumblr and Yahoo! are both all about users, design, and finding surprise and inspiration amidst the everyday.

So Yahoo! wants to meet today’s media where they are while creating a home for brands as well as being part of your daily expression. It makes sense, though Yahoo! is still a powerful company, it hasn’t been very relevant in a long time. Aligning itself with successful and sexy startups (Summly and Tumblr) makes getting back to the table a more manageable journey.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo! has already demonstrated staying power over the last few years and spending over a billion on Tumblr shows a significant power shift on the company’s part. Though there are risks, what Yahoo! currently lacks is youth power, something Tumblr has in droves. The quest for cool is indeed a desperate one, Yahoo! is rumored to be bidding for video streaming service Hulu as well, but whether it can fork out the millions for that after the billion on Tumblr remains to be seen.

It takes more than pretty and startups to make you cool again

The company has said or done very little search in the last year and its finance app, possibly its best tool, seems to have just been left as is — maybe that is for the best. Though video and news startups have been acquired, Yahoo! isn’t making any big noises around revamping Yahoo! News. Perhaps the company has given up its fight on search (it does Piggyback off Bing after all)? Might be for the best that one.

But there’s still a sense that Yahoo! is struggling with its identity. Is it a tech company or a media company? It may not want to be a media company, but it actually still is and needs to figure out how all that fits in with its new vision.

Here is what I see: a company trying to fight its way back from the depths of irrelevance. Yahoo! isn’t a dead company: anyone that can afford to pay a billion dollars for something that barely makes money isn’t out for the count. What Yahoo! is, is a not so popular big-but-not-mega internet company. It has dedicated users but does not have the cult following of Google, Facebook and Apple.

Mayer is working hard to bring the company back, culling useless apps and launching more user-demanded ones is a good start in the trek out of oblivion. But is a buying spree really the answer?

No one really knows what Yahoo! is up to with all these purchases. A strong mobile, social and media focus seems to be coming through but is it enough? This has been Yahoo!’s problem in recent years, trying to be both a tech and media company. Mayer hasn’t really given a concrete distinction of which she would like to be. For now it just seems to be case of “I got dollar dollar bills” so “buy buy buy”.



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