Revisionist History: Bartz Claims Yahoo Was Never A Search Engine

The New York Times has an interview out with Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz where she declares that Yahoo has “never been a search company.” Astounding, in that that this is not true.

Part of me thinks, “Why bother arguing?” As my A Search Eulogy For Yahoo post from last week explains, whatever Yahoo was, if the Yahoo-Microsoft search deal with goes through, Yahoo’s done as a search engine. Heck, Bartz had effectively taken it out of the search game weeks before the deal was announced by backing away from search as a feature.

Even if the deal should fail — Yahoo is still finished as a search player, now that Bartz has declared to the world that her company apparently can’t even afford to keep up. There’s no going back from that.

But part of me doesn’t like history being rewritten, especially by a CEO who should know her own company’s history. Yahoo was indeed a search engine. It was the very first “feature” that Yahoo offered. Long before email, or IM, or Yahoo Sports or Yahoo News, there’s was Yahoo the search engine.

Search was Yahoo’s origin story. To say Yahoo was never a search engine is like saying Superman wasn’t originally from Krypton or that Spider-Man was never bitten by a spider.

Yes, at first Yahoo’s search was powered by human editors, rather than machines. By 1999, the majority of search engines out there used human editors as the basis of their search. When machine-based search took over, Yahoo shifted along to that eventually, spending plenty for its own technology.

Over the years, I’ve received plenty of Yahoo press releases highlighting that Yahoo was a search engine; was in plenty of briefings where this was discussed. Yahoo spent on plenty on commercials to tell consumers this, such as the one below:

So please, spare me the talk about how Yahoo was never a search engine. It was.

It’s not now, nor is it going to be in the future. As the New York Times piece gets into, Bartz is happy hoping Yahoo hangs on to the 20% share of searches it still has as a legacy from its glory days. There’s apparently no intention to try and grow this.

The NYT piece also highlights how Yahoo expects to move even more firmly into the original content area. The company has long struggled with this. Is it a search engine that points outward to resources, or is it a content company that produces its own material? Clearly, it’ll be a content company — and maybe it will be more successful with that this time without all that search baggage.

Postscript from Greg Sterling:

A couple of years ago Yahoo certainly did consider itself a search company, with a competitive search engine. Said then SVP of search and marketplaces Jeff Weiner in 2002:

“Our objective is to provide the highest-quality search experience, and to be the leading provider of search [technology] on the Internet”

That quote appeared in an article on the heels of Yahoo’s $235 million acquisition of Inktomi in which the following paraphrase of Weiner’s remarks on search also appeared:

Yahoo feels that it can provide a better searching experience to its users if the company uses in-house engineers and assets instead of licensing technology from another company, Weiner said.

The market also thought Yahoo was trying to compete in search because there was immediate criticism and concern voiced over then Yahoo CFO Sue Decker’s 2006 comment:

“We don’t think it’s reasonable to assume we’re going to gain a lot of share from Google,” Chief Financial Officer Susan Decker said in an interview. “It’s not our goal to be No. 1 in Internet search. We would be very happy to maintain our market share.”

Decker was forced to clarify her remarks and backtrack later. Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz’s remarks seem to be something of a replay in an effort to manage expectations now that Yahoo has formally exited the search business.

Postscript from Danny Sullivan:

In various places, I keep seeing people talking about how Yahoo “outsourced” search for most of the time, bringing in names like AltaVista, Inktomi and so on. Yahoo did NOT outsource search for most of its life, and I’ll detail this for the record, below.

March 3, 1995: Yahoo’s birthday, as the company recently reflected upon. Yahoo operated before that, but this was when the company was officially incorporated. The ONLY product was search. You either browsed for web sites by following categories or you did keyword searches.

Behind the scenes, Yahoo used editors who categorized web sites to create its core listings. This was a “directory” model to search. Yahoo was unique among the early players in doing this. That did NOT mean Yahoo lacked search tech. Those directory listings had to be searched through, and quickly, and you needed relevancy algorithms applied to them.

In contrast, there was also the “crawler” approach to building listings, which is commonplace today. This is where search engine automatically visit web pages, make copies of them, then return the most relevant pages first (as best they can guess using search algorithms). That involves much more tech.

Early crawlers were good when you needed to find the needle in the haystack (“long tail search”, but the relevancy was bad for common queries, such as trying to find an official site or the best site for a popular term. Directories did much better at this — and that is why Yahoo grew in popularity over its crawler-based rivals, at first.

Yahoo did outsource to a crawler partner to provide “backup” if it had nothing for a search query out of its own database. The first partner for this was Open Text. You would only see Open Text listings if Yahoo had no listings of its own. The main listings always came from Yahoo.

Mid-1996: Yahoo partnered with AltaVista for its crawler-based backup results. The primary search results on Yahoo still came from its own directory, using its own search technology.

Mid-1998: Yahoo partnered with Inktomi for its crawler-based backup results. Again, primary search results on Yahoo came from Yahoo’s own directory, using its own search technology.

Mid-2000: Yahoo partners with Google for its crawler-based backup results. Same thing as with the other partners — Yahoo’s own listings were still the main ones that searchers saw, using its own editors, its own search tech.

Oct. 2002: Yahoo renews with Google and makes a dramatic shift to its search results. For the first time, crawler-based results are used for the main listings. They’re enhanced with references to the Yahoo Directory, but by and large, Yahoo was simply rebranding Google. This is the first time Yahoo really outsourced its search listings.

Feb. 2004: Yahoo ends use of Google’s search listings in favor of its own crawler-based search technology. In the time since renewing with Google, Yahoo went on a crawler-based technology shopping spree. It announced a deal to buy Inktomi at the end of 2002, completing that in early 2003. It also purchased Overture (formerly GoTo), known primarily for its paid search technology. But Overture also itself had recently bought both the AltaVista and AllTheWeb crawler services. Technologies from all these sources were blended together to create Yahoo Search.

Aug. 2009: Yahoo Search continues to power Yahoo’s main listings, but a deal with Microsoft would give up that technology next year. Yahoo would outsource for the second time in its history — and this time, for good.

The Outsource Myth

As you can see, Yahoo fully outsourced its search listings only once in its 14 1/2 years, from October 2002 through February 2004. That’s a total of 16 months. So for 91% of its time, aside from that tiny window, Yahoo was running its own search tech. It devoted substantial resources to search technology during the first 7 years when it used a directory system. It devoted even more substantial resources over the past 5 years it has been using a crawler-based model. To say Yahoo was never a search company simply flies in the face of the evidence.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Features: Analysis | Microsoft & Yahoo Search Deal | Top News | Yahoo: General | Yahoo: Marketing | Yahoo: Search

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.sweetspotmarketing.com kevinpike

    With that much spin I gotta wonder if she is trying to get a job at FOX News.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com nickstamoulis

    I agree with you Danny, I can’t believe the party line at Yahoo! now is that they were never a search engine…they absolutely were and still are…personally I think this whole deal is going to hurt the Yahoo! and Bing brands and only make Google users even more loyal.

  • http://www.JiansNet.com briteguy

    Being a search engine technologist, I have to say it is too bad that Yahoo gave up.

    They have acquired lot of search engine companies, inktomi, altavista, you name it. All the good engineers too. For once I heard Doug Cutting who invented Lucene java open source search engine work for Yahoo maybe.

    Although being an open source developer I don’t like Microsoft, but, I admire their approach to search, just keep doing it, it is the way to go.

    Yahoo is a coward I have to say. They will never make a great business this way.

  • Andrew Goodman

    Danny, that is some sharp thinking.

    It’s kind of stunning to be reminded that Yahoo really felt that old Directory was so “primary”. But that’s from today’s mindset which has all but closed the door on that particular model. Most industry people today see directories as quaint. Or they don’t see them at all, other than as providing link juice for crawler based rank.

    Would like to take a quantitative stab at “primary,” though. You say all the Altavista and Open Text and Inktomi results back in the 1990′s were “backup” listings. I wonder what clickstreams would have told us? What percentage of clicks exited through the “primary” (Yahoo) listings, and what percentage through the “backup” (crawler, outsourced) listings?

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Andrew, for some reason I remember it being like 1/3 primary and 2/3 on the backup. Or the opposite! Or not at all! It was long ago, and I’m not sure the stats ever got out there.

    I think regardless of the clicks, the primary remain most important. The popular searches that everyone does, you get a bad match on those, I think you go away with a really bad impression of the search engine.

  • http://webguru-co.com mergen

    Yahoo.com is the #1 website in Mongolia. Yet, they still do nothing with it to make money. Everybody and their mothers in Mongolia use Yahoo messenger. In the last two years that I have lived here, I have not seen one single attempt by Yahoo to monetize in this market. The top Mongolian websites are making hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue.

    If Yahoo came to Mongolia officially, they could make millions with their market reach!!! I know the last CEO did nothing. I am kind of still holding out to see if Bartz makes a move. Otherwise, she should just give the full branding usage rights here in Mongolia and make way.

  • ChiefAlchemist

    Danny… Danny… Danny… :)

    Read again: “CEO Carol Bartz where she declares that Yahoo has “never been a search company.” No one said Yahoo never did search. What Bartz said was Yahoo wasn’t a search company. In other words, Yahoo was – and continues to be – more than that. Just like Toyota isn’t a tire company, even though they sell millions of tires. Get it?

    I’d like to add that Google isn’t a search company either. Google is an advertising platform. .It just so happens that search is the means to the advertising ends. If you don’t believe me then check out Google’s results… Nearly all their revenue comes from… drum roll please… Advertising. Don’t believe me, ask any newspaper what biz Google is in. NO ONE fears the Google search engine, they fear the Google advertising platform machine.

    So then… I’m not splitting hairs.To evaluate and predict where any of these outfits are headed there needs to be clear understanding what lines of business they are in.

    Pardon me for being a new comer and using such a critical thinking approach but I couldn’t be silent on this one. I honestly expected better based on what I’ve heard about SEL.

  • http://www.acquisio.com poiriem

    ChiefAlchemist – I assure you, Yahoo was nothing but a search engine in the late 90s.

  • ChiefAlchemist

    LOL. Ya all aren’t seriously devoting this much bandwidth to what in internet years might was well be a couple lifetimes ago?

    I’m talking about today and tomorrow and you’re worried about 1998.

    How do I go about getting my accnt deleted? This is far too small minded for me, sorry.

  • http://Propsblog.com Leah Waddill

    Seriously? They even TRIED to claim that? That is one of the only things I even recognize yahoo as. It is amazing that with their history it serach engines that they would try make deceptive claims like that. LOL.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    ChiefAlchemist, for Yahoo to “do search” meant they were indeed a search company — and not just one in 1998 but right now in 2009.

    There are only a handful of companies with the technology to crawl the entire web and provide quality rankings in response to heavy user demand: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Ask in out of the US; Baidu in China (for China, and not global).

    To have that technology, Yahoo is a search company. Morever, they’ve heavily integrated search into many of their other products over the years. Trust me (or don’t, I guess), but I’ve been in briefings with Yahoo many times over the past few years. Recent history — and there was no suggestion they weren’t a search company.

    Yes, they do more than search. So does Google. So does Microsoft. So what? So what then prompts Bartz to say what she did. Answer is simple. She has investors wondering why Yahoo appears to be giving away its search technology for nothing to Microsoft. Saying they were “never a search company” is an attempt to make it seem like Yahoo wasn’t giving up anything as part of this — as if hundreds of million dollars of investment in search over the years, as well as incredible knowledge of search, simply never existed.

    I don’t disagree with the issue about ads. If I’m asked what Google is, more than anything else, I call it a media company. Not a tech company. It uses tech as a clever way to sell ads. I’ve written about this many times in the past. It still irks me that it gets called a tech company.

    But still, it’s also a search company. Whatever either of us want to call it as a umbrella description, within Google is a major emphasis on search. Search is a product it produces. It is a search company as well as other things. And so is Yahoo, though not for much longer.

  • http://www.marketing-jive.com J Nimetz

    Well said Danny. Fantastic post. The whole Yahoo \slide\ has been interesting to watch over the past 12-18 months. I applauded Jerry Yang’s attempt to rekindle the fire, but alas the investors needed to be appeased.

    No doubt that Yahoo was a Search company, but as you pointed out, they were more than a Search company. I highly doubt that the Bing/Yahoo venture will have a strong impact on breaking the Google habit, it just might, as nickstamoulis stated make people feel an even stronger affinity for Google.

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