When Yahoo announced in early December that it would integrate with Facebook Connect, many considered it an admission of the long-reigning portal’s defeat in the battle to be the hub for people’s online identities. Om read the deal as a signal of Yahoo’s “technological irrelevan[ce],” and by extension, the “ultimate validation” of Facebook.
Yahoo certainly made itself a target by pre-announcing a non-monetary integration set to “begin in the first half of 2010″ but offering little to no information as to what, exactly, that meant. However when it comes to the social web, the company does have a master plan, said Yahoo’s Cody Simms and Chris Yeh in a visit to GigaOM this week. (This follows previous posts I’ve written about Facebook and Google‘s master plans for the social web in 2010.)
What Yahoo wants to do is aggregate its users’ activities from around the web. The Facebook Connect integration is the first in a string of coming deals with other social sites, said Simms, who is director of product management for the Yahoo application platform. It is also supposed to be a deeper form of content and user sharing than that available to those sites that simply integrate Facebook Connect on their own (but again, there’s nary a mockup to give some actual shape to the deal).
2009 was a behind-the-scenes building year for Yahoo’s social aggregation strategy, said Simms and Yeh, who’s head of the Yahoo developer network. The company has finally created a common platform layer for its many, many products — with more than 80 of them integrated since last April. It’s also allowed outside applications to come onto its platform, for instance Mint on My Yahoo, through OpenSocial.
And now, at the center of Yahoo’s new open social strategy, is a product called Yahoo Updates, which consists of activity streams shown in Yahoo Mail, on its front page, in Yahoo Messenger clients and on its toolbars. They are already functional; users receive a feed of updates from their contacts’ participation on Yahoo media properties when they comment or rate a story, for example. So when a normal user goes about their business chatting with their friends or reading their email, they’ll also see a stream of their friends’ social activities and updates taking place on Yahoo or elsewhere.
Yahoo users’ primary mode is consumption, said Simms, so that sort of activity will remain the core of Updates. But what the Facebook integration will do is enable that feed to be interactive — so a user could see a post from Facebook and comment back on it, for example. And a user’s Yahoo activity could show up in their Facebook stream. The concept and execution is quite similar to AOL’s Socialthing/Lifestream efforts.
What about integrating with Yahoo’s own services? This will happen in a number of ways:
* In the next couple of months Yahoo plans to start allowing comments on its incredibly popular News, Finance and Sports sites. While that will undoubtedly set off unfathomable floods of comments on the story pages, you’ll get the ones from your contacts brought right to you.
* Right now the people you see in your Updates are those with whom you have explicit Yahoo Connections. Next the company will add in your Mail and Messenger contacts. (Google is also planning to make use of existing social ties in its communications products.)
* Yahoo will also try to make helpful content connections itself. So if an update says “Just saw ‘Avatar,'” Yahoo might drop in the appropriate movie trailer.
The beauty of the Yahoo Updates product is that it isn’t really a product. And there won’t be any “big bang release,” said Simms. Unlike similar efforts like FriendFeed or Cliqset, which are great at aggregating social activity, Updates doesn’t require users to do anything but go to their friendly and familiar Yahoo sites — something millions of people do every day. And Yahoo should be able to attract developers to build interesting things because it can offer them an tremendous amount of traffic.
But Yahoo will need to be really smart about integrating services in order to ensure that the combined user experience is better than going to all of them individually. And that’s going to be hard, because often someone else owns the social graph, users syndicate their updates all over the place, commenting and rating systems differ — in other words, the whole thing could end up an uninformative, repetitive muddle.