Chief executive Marissa Mayer said Wednesday in a call with analysts that she thinks Yahoo's core business is on "a better path" than when she took over. In light of Wednesday's news, I decided to evaluate that statement by taking a reviewer's eye to the company's most visible product: Yahoo.com.
You could argue that, in terms of mindshare, Yahoo.com is dead and totally irrelevant. But the truth is that Yahoo is still one of the Web’s top properties, ranking third behind only Google and Facebook.
Not that that third-place finish has been that helpful for Yahoo. Looking at the main website, it's not hard to see why. It's fairly confusing, even outdated:
Mayer knew that when she took the company's top job in 2012 — she inherited a tangle of half-baked strategies from her predecessors and was charged with converting those half-steps into a turnaround.
There's no doubt that was a big challenge. But just looking at Yahoo's main website shows you that Mayer hasn't managed to pick a strategy either. Top billing goes to Yahoo's own daily news operation, but the bulk of the page is devoted to stories from other places. And there's also no sense of prioritization. The premium content Mayer ponied up big money for — Katie Couric's reports, David Pogue's reviews and stories from its admirable sports staff — are shuffled to the side, in a spot that would normally house an ad you were trying to ignore. That makes them seem less important than the stories Yahoo is picking up from other sites.
The same is true of content from Yahoo Screen, the video service that was briefly in the spotlight for signing splashy deals, such as the back catalog of "Saturday Night Live" and an effort to revive the sitcom "Community." Yahoo Screen eventually had to take a $42 million write-down after the show fizzled — in part, some analysts say, to poor promotion.
Media, of course, is only one part of Yahoo's focus. But its main page certainly doesn't make that clear. Other high-profile product acquisitions aren't anywhere on the page. There are no highlights from or links to Tumblr, which Mayer bought for about $1 billion. There are no top news summaries from Summly. There are no hot items to watch from Polyvore. On mobile devices, which were ostensibly going to be a focus for Mayer, there's even less indication that Yahoo does anything but aggregate news stories.
The site, in other words, could do with a makeover that extends beyond a new logo. It, like Yahoo itself, needs focus — rather than more half-steps.
To her credit, Mayer's Yahoo has tried to make some bold changes that have been met with some resistance — and possibly made the company shy about rolling out broader changes. For example, when Mayer shut down the early web-hosting service Geocities, there was a lot of outcry despite the fact that most people hadn't thought about the service for the better part of a decade. A graphically beautiful redesign of Yahoo Mail faced its own backlash, as users reported lost e-mails and general confusion about the layout.
I should also say there are two products from Yahoo that I use regularly and like a lot, and both are part of Mayer's effort to champion mobile early in her tenure. Those are Aviate, the company’s app launcher for Android, and News Digest, which uses Summly's technology. Both are products of acquisitions Mayer made early in her tenure.
As standalone products, they've been great. In fact, a lot of Yahoo's standalone app products work well, such as Yahoo Weather, Yahoo Mail, even a revamped Yahoo Messenger released on the same day the rumors of a spin-off started. Again, however, you could argue that's putting effort into parts of the digital world that already have their champions. A new version of Yahoo Messenger isn't exactly going to send anyone's heart a-racing, and chances are most people have their messaging app of choice — one that their friends are already using.
Which brings us back to the main problem: Yahoo doesn't mean anything to most consumers nowadays. To find its true path, the company needs a niche, or at least a way of doing things that no one else is owning right now. It needs to find its verb.