Yahoo: Busy as Usual

With all eyes focused on the probably-abandoned (?) takeover attempt from Microsoft, it’s easy to forget that business as usual went on at Yahoo. And boy, has the venerable search engine been busy. In this article I will relate just a few things Yahoo has accomplished. It might reassure the skeptics that the company still has some life in it.

I’m going to start with something I already reviewed recently: Yahoo Buzz. In case you forgot, Yahoo Buzz is an attempt to add a social twist to Yahoo News. Users vote on news stories they like, and content that receives lots of votes can end up on the front page. It sounds like a Digg clone, but it isn’t. Other factors affect a story’s score, including how often users mail a link to the story to friends, and the popularity of search terms related to the story.

One very cool aspect of Yahoo Buzz is that blogs can compete with the big guys. And yes, blogs can even get on the front page of Yahoo from Yahoo Buzz. That happened to ReadWriteWeb recently. Richard MacManus reported that the site got its first link on the Yahoo home page thanks to Yahoo Buzz. He wrote up the site’s experience, which I’ll describe in more detail in a minute. But the bottom line is, content creators will probably fall in love with Yahoo Buzz very quickly.

MacManus said that the story in question hit Yahoo’s home page at 10 PM Pacific standard time, and stayed there for about three and a half hours. It didn’t kill the site’s servers, but it did produce 45,000 page views – outside of prime time. “That is more than a typical prime time digg or slashdot homepager,” MacManus noted.

There’s even better news for those who like feedback. Just before the story hit Yahoo’s home page, it had 30 comments. After Yahoo linked to the story, it got an additional 120 comments. “What’s more, many of the comments [to the story] were thoughtful and added to the discussion,” MacManus observed. He didn’t even seem to mind too much that many of the comments were critical; the important point was “that people were passionate about the topic.” In other words, Yahoo Buzz is driving engaged traffic to content creators’ web sites – and doing it better than Digg or Slashdot.

Not only is Yahoo helping content creators, they’re helping their advertisers – which only makes sense, since these people help pay Yahoo’s bills. One of the biggest concerns of anyone who advertises with a search engine is click fraud – people who click on search-related ads with no real interest and no intention to buy anything. Like other search engines, Yahoo maintains a system that identifies what it believes to be fraudulent clicks on ads and discounts them so advertisers aren’t charged. In April, Yahoo took steps to make the system more transparent.

It launched something called the Click Filter Report. According to Yahoo’s blog entry on the subject, “This report will help you understand how many clicks we are recording and how many of the ones we do record are deemed invalid. You can compare that information to the clicks you’re seeing through your weblogs or third party products and, if something doesn’t seem quite right, you can submit a click investigation request to our team.”

Keeping with the whole spirit of transparency, Yahoo finally gave us some good numbers about click fraud. The company said it discards between 12 and 15 percent of all clicks. Those are “typical” numbers, it notes, and the amount of click fraud committed can vary by industry, month, and product.

If you advertise with Yahoo, and you want to look over the click filter report for  your site, it’s not difficult to do. The blog post explains that it’s in the same location as all other account reports. All you need to do is click on the “Reports” tab, and then select “Click Filter” under the “Traffic Quality Reports” section in the Reports Navigator on the left side of the screen. Judging from Yahoo’s screen shot, a click filter report is fairly comprehensive. There are graphs and drop-down menus, and you can customize the report to a significant degree. It will show information for a range of timeframes, and can be set up to include details such as impressions, invalid clicks, invalid click rate, and average cost-per-click.

Yahoo is pretty emphatic about the flexibility of its click filter report: “You can choose to view this data across your entire account or by campaign, by distribution tactic, or by specifying certain campaigns by name via the search function. If you have multiple accounts, the report can display data from all of your accounts simultaneously.” The search engine notes that the click filter report is just one of a number of traffic quality measures it has undertaken recently, and seems committed to an ongoing effort in this area.

Responses have been mixed. Some think this new report and attitude of transparency will lure advertisers away from Google. Others think it’s merely a gimmick on Yahoo’s part to try to convince them that the search engine cares about click fraud. Assuming the information is accurate, however, it seems certain that users will find that it helps them measure the ROI of their search advertising campaigns.

Maybe Yahoo took its naming inspiration from Jonathan Coulton’s song “Code Monkey.” Why else would it name its developer platform SearchMonkey? The service, in private beta at the time of writing, allows site owners to customize their Yahoo search result listings. No, you can’t move your site up in the rankings  other than by the usual ways, but you can customize the way people see your listing.

It’s kind of funny to think about it, but we’ve gotten so used to the ten-links-in-a-list presentation that it can be hard to imagine a different way to show our sites. Fortunately, Mark Hendrickson writing for Techcrunch offers an example of how different your listing can look if you want it to:


As you can see, the “after” version of this restaurant listing links to reviews, photos, ratings, an address and phone number, hints at a price range, and lets you send the link to a friend or your phone. That gives you a whole lot of information before you even click through to the main restaurant link.

I didn’t get the chance to check out the SearchMonkey tool myself – and it wouldn’t have helped me if I had, because users need to be comfortable with PHP, XSLT, and DataRSS. That said, those who are comfortable with those languages will have no problem with SearchMonkey, according to Hendrickson. Indeed, he thinks that its ease of use and excellent results will lead to SearchMonkey “becoming very popular with website owners big and small.”

The big question, of course, is whether searchers will take to the new format, and that’s hard to know in advance. But it does seem to encourage interacting with the listing to do research or spread information around. I could see the “Send to a Friend” link in particular getting a lot of use. It will be interesting to see what happens after Yahoo takes this out of beta and searchers start seeing the change in the look of their results. If you’re interested, you can join the developer preview of Yahoo SearchMonkey.

There’s a lot more going on than just little bits and pieces here and there. All of these projects, and more that I haven’t mentioned (and still more that Yahoo hasn’t launched yet but are in the works) are part of the search engine’s new Yahoo Open Strategy. Michael Arrington detailed what Yahoo’s CTO Ari Balogh and Chief Architect (Platforms) Neal Sample had to say about the strategy, referred to as YOS internally. It is nothing short of a complete re-envisioning of what Yahoo is and what it does.

Here’s the line from Arrington’s post that really sums it up: “Yahoo wants to turn itself into one big social network-driven site, and simultaneously open many of its core services to get users and developers thinking of Yahoo as their Internet hub.” In short, Yahoo isn’t trying to organize the world’s information (that’s Google’s goal); it’s trying to capture the world’s attention.

But they’re not trying to do it with the walled-garden approach that failed so spectacularly with AOL. For example, they joined the Google-led Open Social Initiative, and they’re encouraging third parties to enhance their search engine; SearchMonkey is just one example of this.

Arrington noted that there are three prongs to YOS: platformization, opening services, and portability. All three of these should vastly improve the user experience. Most of all, they’ll make it much easier to use any part of Yahoo in general.

For example, if you use Yahoo to any great degree, you might have an account on Flickr, del.icio.us, Yahoo 360, Yahoo Mail, participate in Yahoo Groups…you get the idea. You might have different logins and/or profiles. One of Yahoo’s goals under the platformization initiative is to reduce those profiles to a single, unified Yahoo user profile. 

Yahoo opening its services encompasses a few different things, most of which will be more apparent to developers than casual users. Basically, they’re going to enable developers to create third party applications which will be deeply integrated with Yahoo services. Yahoo will also offer the Yahoo Application Platform, which will let users host their independent applications using Yahoo’s resources. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Google already offers something very similar: the Google App Engine.

With its portability initiative, Yahoo is going where Facebook feared to tread. It will encourage the spread of Yahoo widgets and even user data around the web. One example of this, cited by Sample, is the ability to synchronize the Yahoo address book with Plaxo.

This is a huge project, and questions remain as to whether Yahoo can execute it effectively. If they can, though, they’re not going to look very much like Google when they’re done. Search will be only a part of a much bigger picture. Rather than competing head to head with Google, Yahoo is working to change the rules of the game, or maybe change itself to better suit the future it sees coming: a future that looks different from the one Google apparently sees. Google accomplished something similar when it first came on the scene and upset the balance, making Yahoo and even Microsoft scramble to adjust to the new order. Is it Yahoo’s turn to upset the apple cart?

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