Why Does Yahoo Want to be Like Google?

Sure, there are good, hard (monetary) reasons why Yahoo and every other search engine seems to want to be like Google. However, that might not be the best approach. Yahoo and Google start from different points, so molding itself after Google may not take Yahoo where it really wants to go.

If you look at the innovations that Yahoo and many of the other major search engines have made over the past few months (and maybe longer), it looks as if everyone wants to be like Google. And really, who can blame them? Google is wildly successful; the award-winning search engine has become synonymous with searching for something on the Internet. It is the first – and often, last – stop for searchers looking for everything from aardvarks (81,000 hits) to zoomorphs (567 hits), from open source software (more than 41 million hits) to Microsoft-compatible software (about five and a half million hits), and just about anything else you can imagine.

In the search engine business, an audience of that size translates to huge revenues. I hardly need to tell you that most search engines, including Google and Yahoo, make their money from advertising. Those who sell to advertisers typically follow a rule of thumb: the larger the audience an advertiser can reach, the more likely he is to part with a large sum of money. Actually, that’s an oversimplification; size isn’t everything when you can target your ads so that they are seen only by the people who are most likely to be interested in what you offer. But again, this is an area where a search engine, especially one used by as many people as use Google, excels. Who could possibly be a better candidate for a targeted ad than someone who is actively searching for something that relates to what the advertising business can provide?

It’s particularly interesting to watch the changes that Google makes, and see the other search engines institute similar offerings, because in some ways it’s such a classic example of the kind of thing that’s supposed to happen all the time in business. A field opens, one or two companies get there first, then, after they solidify their position, a newcomer gets in, shakes things up, and creates a new de facto standard. In the unhappy ending of the story, the newcomer ends up pushing the older companies out of business.

For those who can’t remember that far back, Google is the newcomer when compared with Yahoo. Yahoo just celebrated its tenth anniversary as a company this year; it incorporated in March of 1995. Google’s founders had just met at that time, and did not incorporate or become a company until mid-to-late 1998. Yes, this is only three years of difference, but we are talking about Internet time. Observers have stated at least as far back as 1997 that one calendar year equals four years in Internet time; you can easily do the math.

The rush to imitate Google became particularly noticeable around the middle of last year. That’s when Google started a beta that put every company offering free Web-based email on notice. I’m talking, of course, about Gmail. Instead of figuring that its users would be satisfied with a mere four or five MB of storage, Google upped the ante all the way to 1 GB. Yahoo responded in June 2004 by raising the storage capacity for its Web-based email…to 100 MB, only one-tenth of what Gmail offered. The company gradually continued to raise the storage capacity of the service, finally reaching 1 GB in March of 2005 – coincidently (or perhaps not so coincidently), the same month that Google took its Gmail service out of beta and opened it to all Google users. That same week, to trump this play from Yahoo, Google raised the storage capacity of Gmail.

You can see a similar story play out in areas that are more closely related to search. For example, take desktop search. Users of Unix-based systems are intimately familiar with the “grep” command, but those who use Microsoft’s various flavors of operating systems have often been less than thrilled with the search function that the software giant includes. I have used both “grep” and Microsoft’s search on the appropriate systems. They have two things in common: there is absolutely no guarantee that you will find what you are looking for, and they can take forever to finish.

Somebody at Google must have figured that, if its search algorithm can do so much to help people find what they’re looking for on the Web, surely it can do something to improve desktop search. The beta for Google Desktop Search came out on October 14, 2004. Yahoo followed up with a desktop search beta of its own, on January 11, 2005.

If you check the dates on Yahoo and Google press releases for various new features, you will see the same thing repeated over and over again: Google comes out with a new service, and Yahoo (and other search engines) copies it as quickly as they can. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Google must be one of the most sincerely flattered companies in the history of the Internet. If Yahoo thinks this is the correct approach, it is clearly not alone. That brings up one inevitable question: is this the correct approach after all?

All it takes is a casual glance at the home pages of both Google and Yahoo to see that these companies are birds of quite different feathers. Yahoo’s front page is full of stuff. Across the top, you can choose from seven different search categories, including Web, images, video, directory, local, news, and products. Six other icons across the top lead to other Yahoo services, such as finance, music, and email.

Down the left side of the home page are boxes in various sizes that show other Yahoo services, including those for car buyers, small business owners, classifieds, and so forth. Down the right side is an ad, and…more services. This includes news, a weather and traffic search, and a box that links to Yahoo’s international websites. The page is so busy, it would be hard to find the search box if Yahoo didn’t put it at the top in the middle of the page (indeed, I have seen earlier layouts of Yahoo’s front page where the search box was much more difficult to find).

Contrast this with Google’s home page. There are literally no image icons on the page. You can choose about six different categories to search, or click on “more” for more options; you can also click on “Advanced Search” to be more specific about the filters you set up for your search. Clicking on “Language Tools” lets you change the language in which your search is performed, among other things. “Preferences” also lets you change some details about how Google presents itself to you.

Underneath Google’s search box, aside from the “Google Search” and “I’m Feeling Lucky” buttons, you can click on “Advertising Programs” if you want to advertise with Google, “Business Solutions,” or “About Google.” You can also “Make Google Your Homepage!” The last bit of information tells you how many pages Google searches; it was up to 8,058,044,651 when I checked.

The point is, Google’s interface is totally clean and uncluttered when compared to Yahoo’s. The search box, the company name, and all of the links I just described take up less than two-thirds of the front page. You don’t have to scroll down to see everything on Google’s home page…but you do with Yahoo (on my monitor, at least). If Yahoo really is trying to be like Google, why does it look so different?

It can be argued that the difference is there for historical reasons. Yahoo’s interface has always been busy, as were the interfaces of many of the other early search engines. I suppose they were afraid that they would bore their users if they didn’t present an interface brimming with icons to click and services to try.

In many ways, Google’s interface was a reaction to all that busyness. It made its name as the place to go when all you want to do is search the Web. Users loved (and still love) the lack of distractions on the home page. Who needs entertainment news when what you really want to know is where you can find an article about skin cancer research?

But that may be part of the point. While both Yahoo and Google search the Web, they have somewhat different missions. Google sums itself up right in the first sentence of its company overview: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The company has explicitly associated everything it has done since its founding with search, in one way or another.

Yahoo seems to take a different approach. In its overview, Yahoo speaks of evolving “into a global brand that has changed the way people communicate with each other, find and access information, and make purchases. Today, Yahoo! Inc. is the Internet’s leading global consumer and business services company, offering a comprehensive network of essential services for Web users around the globe as well as businesses of all sizes.”

In short, for Yahoo, searching for and organizing information is really more of a means to an end. For Google, searching for and organizing information, despite all of the areas it has branched out into, is an end in itself. These are philosophical differences, which lead to somewhat different business models. Looked at from a certain perspective, Google’s branching into areas such as offering Web-based email could be said to be imitating Yahoo!

The truth, of course, is that neither company should be explicitly imitating the other one. They are competing in the same field for many of the same customers, of course, so they will naturally find themselves trying to fill some of the same needs. But what Yahoo should be doing (and has been doing, if its recent strong quarterly results are any indication) is thinking about the best way to fill these needs that is in keeping with its own company mission. Yahoo will not regain its glory by trying to be a poor man’s Google.

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