Looks Like it`s Back to the Drawing Board for Yahoo 360

Yahoo 360 has been trailing the more popular blogging sites such as MySpace and Blogger. Will the latest redesign help it catch up? And if not, what will? Hugo Guzman takes a look at Yahoo 360 and its competitors to find out.

As far as blogging platforms go, Yahoo’s is pretty bad. Actually, it’s not so much about being bad as it is about being non-existent.

And so with that in mind, Yahoo vice president of product development Bradley Horowitz made a public announcement regarding the future of their Yahoo 360 offering. During the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, Horowitz told the crowd that, "Yahoo 360 may be doing a 180 [degree turn]."

He was responding to an audience member who voiced his displeasure with Yahoo’s current blogging platform, which has been in the beta stage since it was launched in March of 2005.

A quick look at http://360.yahoo.com offers little to titillate the senses or the intellect, so I decided to take a closer look at what Yahoo 360 has to offer (or more specifically, what it doesn’t offer) by opening a user account and logging on.

At first glance, it appears as if Yahoo made a half-hearted attempt at making Yahoo 360 more than a simple blogging interface, blending in some of the social networking features that make Myspace.com such a popular locale for web users. So in essence, Yahoo 360 appears to be a melding of a straight publishing interface like Google’s blogger.com and the aforementioned Myspace.com. Mind you, these two portals are the No. 1 and No. 2 blogging interfaces in the world, respectively, but we’ll get back to that later…

{mospagebreak title=Getting Started}

The first thing I was prompted to do is create "My Page," which appears to be a shabby attempt at creating a "MySpace" styled personal profile. This feature is fairly customizable, easy to use, and allows for images, a personal message, etc., but it clearly pales in comparison to the myriad of customization options offered at Myspace.com. And part of the problem is that most of the custom features available at MySpace come courtesy of third-party providers such as www.pimpmyspace.org. Yahoo 360 simply can’t compete in this aspect, because their lack of popularity means that no enterprising web publishers will spend much time customizing layouts and tools for Yahoo’s offering they way they do for MySpace. Need proof? My website portfolio includes a Myspace profile customization site, but I’ve never even contemplated such a move as it relates to a customization site for Yahoo 360 (and I’m sure I’m not alone).

On to the next step, which was to set up my actual blog. Here I encountered much of the standard fare offered by other portals like blogger.com. They even had a check box for publishers that wished to mark their blog as "Mature Content." Apparently, this designation ensures that said blog can only be viewed by people that want to view mature content.

The actual publishing interface is fairly simple, and reminiscent of what is offered at blogger.com. Yahoo 360 allows for a title, and image attachment, and a half-dozen or so text formatting options. It won’t really do the trick for professional, SEO-minded publishers because it doesn’t offer a way to edit key meta tags such as the "Title" tag. But then again, blogger.com doesn’t offer that function either.

(Note: The title of the blog also serves as the Title tag on the HTML document, so for those of you limited to blogger.com or other basic blogging interfaces, remember to create keyword heavy titles!).

{mospagebreak title=Other Options}

Beyond the blog publishing interface, Yahoo 360 offers several other options, which again, are reminiscent of what is offered over at myspace.com.

There’s a "My Friends" feature which allows you to network with other Yahoo 360 users and create a web of online friends. Also, there’s a mailbox feature, which allows users to e-mail one another from within Yahoo 360. In addition, the folks at Yahoo wisely decided to include an "Invite" button which allows existing users to recommend Yahoo 360 to their friends. And lastly, there are "Search" and "Setting" options which are a staple of any respected publishing or social networking platform.

My overall impression of Yahoo 360’s beta offering is this: the powers that be at Yahoo made a reactionary move when they created the interface. There’s really nothing original about the product offering, and while they were right in emulating the top online blog publishing interface and the top social networking site, there is no way that educated online users will defect from the blogger.coms and Myspace.coms of the world in order to hang out at Yahoo’s diluted version.

Couple that with the aforementioned handicap of not having third-party customization availability, and you have a recipe for mediocrity.

But don’t fret, Yahoo. Based on my experience in the corporate world of top-tier web publishing, you are not the first entity to take a half-hearted approach at trying to replicate a formula that already works. Now it’s just a matter of scrapping this cookie cutter approach, and coming up with a truly original idea that will make web users seriously consider using you for their blogging needs.

But how can Yahoo go about doing this? The first step would be to take a closer look at their top two competitors.

{mospagebreak title=Suggestions for Improvement}

According to comScore Networks, a web portal that tracks website popularity, the leading blog hosting and authoring service in the United States was blogger.com with 21 million unique visitors. MySpace.com’s blogs came in second with 16 million unique visitors. Now clearly, simply measuring unique visits is not a true indicator of who has the best blogging platform, because said measurement is really more of a reflection of what blogs are getting read, as opposed to which tool bloggers like to use when they create their blogs.

Still, it’s a good measuring stick, so we’ll use it for the purposes of our analysis.

Since the advent of the blogging phenomenon, blogger.com has always been the standard bearer for small publishers. There are a handful of more robust blog publishing interfaces, such as WordPress and TypePad, but for the little guy, blogger.com has always been where it’s at.

But believe it or not, even their offering would benefit from a few upgrades. For starters, blogger.com does suffer from intermittent outages and "freezes" which kick publishers out and/or do not allow them to log in and create new entries. In addition, the aforementioned lack of SEO friendliness afforded by the default setup makes blogger.com a very limited application for the serious web publisher that wants to establish a respectable web presence.

However, what blogger.com lacks in terms of SEO features and reliability is made up for by their ability to inform their publishers and refer users to existing blogs. Blogger has features such as "Blogs of Note" and "Recently Published" which alert users to blogs that might be worth reading. Their dashboard also offers "Blogger News" which is extremely attractive to unseasoned publishers looking to improve their craft. Yahoo 360 has a news blog of sorts, which is a sort of a product update vehicle, but this is not what publishers are looking for, in my opinion.

And as for MySpace, their blogging interface, like blogger.com, is extremely basic and is also prone to outages and "freezes" (even more so than Blogger). I know this, because like most people on this earth, I have a MySpace profile and I actually post blogs from time to time (no, I’m not going to share my address with you all). Basically, it’s just a title, category, text editing, and a few catchy personalization features such as "Current Mood."

And that’s about it.

So I guess the point here is that a blogging interface doesn’t have to be very fancy in order to be effective. But it must have an angle of some sort. Blogger’s angle is that it was the first true blog interface (something Yahoo will never be able to claim). MySpace’s angle is the overwhelming myriad of personalization features (both internal and third-party) and the sheer size of its social networking community.

Yahoo may not be able to match that level of personalization, but what it can do is find ways to convert their existing overall user base (Yahoo is arguably the largest web portal in the world) into bloggers/social networkers.

According to David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo.com, social media is a key focus for their web giant, and blogging is a big part of that, so the company has plans to be a major player in blogging no later than five years from now. That’s fine and dandy, but so far, there has been little more than talk and efforts to secure corporate sponsorship for Yahoo 360, as evidenced by this week’s launch of a high profile campaign for Nissan and the launching of the first corporate page over at 360.yahoo.com.

Finding big-name advertisers is great for the bottom line, but if Yahoo is serious about becoming a legitimate entity in the blogging and/or social networking arena they will need to come up with a truly original plan for converting existing publishers and enticing new ones to join Yahoo 360. They were late to the party on both fronts, so short of a merger of some sort, a truly revolutionary stride will be required in order for them to rise to the forefront.

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