There’s been a rush of optimism about Yahoo lately, thanks in large part to its new CEO, much-admired former Google executive Marissa Mayer. After a number of speeches about her broader strategy to reinvent the company, the new chief Yahoo unveiled a redesigned site on Wednesday — a relaunch that garnered a bunch of somewhat lukewarm reviews from the usual suspects. The reality is that Yahoo’s latest attempt to reinvent the old “portal” approach to the web might have made sense five years ago, but it is both too little and too late.
In a post announcing the launch at Yahoo’s “Yodel Anecdotal” blog, Mayer talks about how the site has been redesigned to provide a “stream” of news and information that scrolls onward for as long as a user might like, instead of just a big static chunk of headlines. As she puts it:
“Since streams of information have become the paradigm of choice on the web, we’re introducing a newsfeed with infinite scroll, letting you experience a virtually endless feed of news articles. Whether you are a sports fanatic or entertainment buff, you can easily customize your newsfeed to your interests.”
We have a news feed just like Facebook!
Mayer is right that streams have become the paradigm of choice, but that particular boat set sail a long time ago — Facebook first introduced the News Feed, which has become the go-to news and information source for hundreds of millions of people, in 2006. Twitter, the other news source that pioneered the real-time stream of information, was also created in 2006 and how has hundreds of millions of users. Facebook, of course, recently crossed over the 1-billion-user mark.
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That’s not to say a company couldn’t reinvent the real-time news stream, it just means that if Yahoo plans to do so, it’s going to have to try a lot harder than if it had embarked on such a strategy four or five years ago. All the new Yahoo page appears to do is let headlines scroll beyond the little box that the site used to put them in, something that even newspaper websites — hardly the epitome of innovation — started doing a long time ago.
A more detailed post on the changes from Yahoo’s VP of product, Mike Kerns, describes a great new feature that lets users “click a button that allows you to share the story via email, Facebook, or Twitter.” If that strikes you as something dramatically new, then you haven’t been paying attention.
We have apps too, just like Facebook!
Mayer also talked about new “applications” that Yahoo has added, so that users can always see their updated weather and sports scores, something that again feels like a revamping of a decade-old strategy. The customized portal with tiny news and information “apps” was something that was popular years ago via players like Pageflakes and Netvibes — and Google went after it with iGoogle, an offering it recently decided to mothball. Why? Because it wasn’t providing nearly enough bang for the buck, presumably.
Yahoo is also boasting about the fact that you can now log in with Facebook and see all your friends’ birthdays and other activity — a feature that Facebook first started offering with its Facebook Connect platform launch almost three years ago, and one that is now used by hundreds of thousands of news sites. This offering is not only late, but reinforces how much of Yahoo’s strategy seems to rely on partnering with others, something that is at best an unlikely route to success.
Some supporters of the company argue that Yahoo could reach out to developers of apps that it could run on its home page or in user’s streams, in the same way that Facebook has built much of its success on top of game or app companies like Zynga. But can Yahoo offer anything even close to what Facebook can, either in terms of reach or revenue? And are new versions of Candy Crush Saga or Farmville really worth banking Yahoo’s future on?
It’s true that Yahoo still has hundreds of millions of loyal users, but then so does AOL’s dial-up business — in other words, there may still be value there, but it is in a process of gradual (and likely accelerating) decline. Yahoo Finance still has its fans, and so does the site’s fantasy sports offerings, but the reality is that its overall traffic has been falling, and tweaks to its home page offerings are not going to reverse that in any significant way.
In that sense, Mayer’s much-hyped relaunch of the home page seems a lot like adding a new coat of paint and some racing stripes to your old Chevy. It may make you feel better, but it’s not going to go any faster.