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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.