By Sarah Perez
Yahoo (YHOO) plans to compete on mobile by way of partnerships, not hardware or operating systems, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer told Bloomberg at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where the subject of the talk was the future of Yahoo’s business. The talk also delved into other areas of focus, including Yahoo’s homepage, media properties, and where it could compete on search and personalization going forward.
“I think that’s it’s really important,” Mayer said of competing on mobile. “If you look at what’s happening in terms of the shift to mobile, the number of mobile phones and smartphones in the world has tripled in five years. Tablet sales will outsell laptops this coming year, if predictions hold true,” she added.
Playing to Yahoo's Strengths on Mobile
She said that for Yahoo, that shift means the company now has to focus on how these devices work, what they provide for and how they can best meet users’ expectations. In Yahoo’s case, she noted the strong correlation between its strengths and the daily tasks that users’ do on their phones -- email, check the weather, check the news, share photos, get financial quotes, check sports scores, and play games.
“The nice thing at Yahoo is that we have all the content that people want on their phones. We have these daily habits. I think whenever you have a daily habit and providing a lot of value around it, there is opportunity to not only provide that value to the end user but to create a great business,” Mayer said.
But the bigger question is how will Yahoo monetize that shift to mobile? Mayer says that same type of question was the “bane of her existence” from 1999 to 2004, when for five years, everyone outside of Google had asked her how the company was going to make money from search. Now that question seems “almost absurd.”
“Whenever you see consumers adopting a technology, a platform, a particular application like search with this much volume, you know that advertisers will want to participate in that. And you know that there’s usually a way where you can introduce advertising such that it’s not intrusive and it actually adds value to the end user, and it actually enhances the experience,” she said.
Plus, she noted that mobile itself was already being monetized via application stores, meaning that the question is not can mobile make money, but how will Yahoo do so on mobile?
Yahoo Is a "Friendly" Company, Wants to Partner
One interesting question which was asked was how Yahoo can compete without owning one of the key distribution platforms on mobile?
“It’s funny because one of our employees asked that at one of our company meetings. Given that we do not have mobile hardware, a mobile OS, a browser, or a social network, how are we going to compete?” said Mayer. “Of the four horseman of the Internet to adopt that analogy, almost all of them are playing in one if not several of those medium.”
It is funny, because Yahoo actually does have a web browser -- it’s called Yahoo Axis, and it debuted this past spring. Although it never seemed to generate much attention after its big splashy launch, the browser app was “surprisingly good,” we said in our initial review. Yahoo also has a social network, Flickr, which it recently revamped on the desktop, and more critically to become stronger on mobile, adding Instagram-like filters, and an improved way to build up your social graph quickly.
In an era where the next generation of mobile users seems poised to communicate more with media than ever before -- not only on Instagram, but tweeting micro-videos on Twitter’s new app Vine, and sending disposable images instead of texts via Snapchat – it seems that Yahoo might want to highlight that it does actually have a position on mobile and social networks that it could leverage here with Flickr.
That position is even more valuable now that Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has apparently clamped down on letting other networks leverage its social graph. If the next new thing in social graphs is those you like to share photos with, Flickr has room to compete.
The point of Mayer’s comment, though, was that however popular Flickr may be (which is even more impressive given the lack of attention it received over the years), it’s no Facebook. So for Yahoo, Mayer said, it will be about partnerships on mobile and beyond.
“Yahoo has always been a very friendly company. Our focus, in addition to technology, but also on media, means there is an opportunity for strong partnerships. That is what we will be focused on. We work with Apple and Google in terms of the operating system,” she said. “In terms of social network, we have a strong partnership with Facebook. We’re able to work with some of these players that have a lot of strength in order to bolster our user experience that we offer on the Yahoo site.”
Future of Search
Yahoo is still invested in search, too, of course, and here, Mayer had a lot of ideas about what search’s future looks like. “I think all the innovations you’ll see in search will be in the user interface layer,” she said. She mentioned that in the past, the innovations have focused on universal search, instant search, and non-text search like voice search. “I think there’s a huge opportunity in the future around personalization. Understanding what do I know already, what are my preferences, and how to present the information. I think that extends beyond just search, or broadly to discovery. We can think about ‘how do we take the internet and order it for you?’”
To personalize the web in this way, the engine has to know where you are, in what context, who you’re talking to, and more. This personalization technology that she envisions will come about in the next three to five years, Mayer predicted.
In one example, Mayer explained that this personalized technology could involve understanding a user’s Facebook likes, tweets, and what they’re pinning on Pinterest.
That’s also an especially interesting comment, given the recent moves by Russia’s Yandex, which launched an experimental personal assistant yesterday based on Facebook data, which Facebook effectively down within three hours of launch. Clearly, Yandex, too, understands the value that’s there in Facebook’s data set, but moved forward without having the critical discussions with Facebook about what it was planning. If Mayer was to take Yahoo on a similar course, it would be via a partnership, these comments make clear.
Mayer also expressed enthusiasm in developing users’ “interest graph,” to help build these personalization technologies. On that front, Yahoo has a lot of potential for understanding its users thanks to its homepage and media properties; it understand their likes in areas of finance, sports, games, and news. Mayer said there’s a lot of opportunity around interests, as a new disruptive force to follow the waves the tech industry has already been through in the past fifteen years: directories, search, social and mobile.
“Twitter is very interesting,” she said, noting that it is often left out of that “four horsemen” analogy, which takes about tech’s biggest current players (Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Facebook, and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN)).
“I definitely think that with the web becoming so vast, there’s so much content and there’s so much social context, and now with mobile there’s so much location context and activity context, how do you pull all that together? The interesting way to take it is to bring some of that information ... to actually make sense of the content. It’s the internet ordered for you,” she said. “That’s interesting, because it actually brings Yahoo back to its roots -- that’s what Yahoo was -- it took the internet and ordered it up. Now it’s so vast, you can’t just categorize it any more. But could we provide a list of information, a feed if you will, of information that is the web ordered for you, and is also available on your mobile phone?”
Well, we’ll see.