Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Red Pill Edition: Is Yahoo's Carol Bartz the One?

Dear CEO Carol Bartz:

I'm going to give you the blue pill first. You've done a wonderful job fixing many of Yahoo's dysfunctions. Before you arrived, Yahoo users were bombarded with "new-old" ideas, like "Yahoo 360" (a second-tier version of Facebook); constant recycling of entertainment news; and technical glitches too numerous to recount here.

Lest anyone of us forget, you run a fine, trail-blazing company. As I remember, Yahoo was the first major company to offer free lifetime email accounts and to make it easier for laypeople to use internet resources. Yahoo's actions a decade ago helped expand the internet and set the stage for billions of people worldwide to communicate with each other.

And don't think I haven't noticed your take-charge business style. After I complained publicly about all the entertainment news on your home page, you fixed it within a few weeks. Yahoo's home page no longer seems to constantly feature stories involving the Kardashians and Paris Hilton. (From the bottom of my heart, thank you. And thank you for finally fixing many of the glitches in Yahoo's calendar.) Also, just when I thought Yahoo's fantasy sports couldn't get any better, you outdid yourself yet again (the new linear stat graphs are wonderful).

Yet, as you know, Yahoo still has problems. I want to make sure these problems are on your radar screen, so it's time to take the red pill.

Problem 1: Yahoo Tailors its Content to Maximize Eyeballs, another Way of Saying it Emphasizes the Lowest Common Denominator, i.e., Superficial Content over Substance

At this year's annual meeting, I told you Yahoo's front page had gotten so asinine, I had switched to your main competitor's home page. I'm still not back, because for the most part, your front page features stories I've seen before or items I don't care about. In the future, content will be king, and right now, you mostly recycle other people's content based on popularity. Well, it turns out the popular kids on the internet love asinine, superficial stories, and when you move with that crowd, you lose credibility with the nerds, geeks, jocks, goths, rebels, and recluses--i.e., everyone but the cheerleaders and their admiring followers. Is that really the direction you want to go? Headfirst into the land of the average and the Simpsons' Ralph Wiggum?

And do you really think advertisers want to display ads on a website that has no focus? Wouldn't it make more sense to break up Yahoo into multiple sites, where you could tailor content (and ads) to more specific groups of people? Google uses AdWords to tailor its advertising to specific users--what do you have that can compete with AdWords?

Problem 2: Hateful Comments

Your desire for mass appeal extends to the comments section of your articles, which you do not actively monitor. As a result, Yahoo's comments sections are filled with the backwards side of America. Few other reputable websites would allow the comments I saw on August 17, 2010 on Yahoo:

"DON'T BE GAY!!" on an article discussing a Mississippi school district's policy forbidding women from wearing tuxedos for senior yearbook portraits.

"Something needs to be done about the black problem. Why can,t [sic] the scientfic [sic] community get together and figure out a way to stop the pieces of scum from reproducing?" From Bill in Sacramento, on an article where an African-American mother killed her children ("SC mom killed kids, dumped car in river"). [Note: the person who wrote the comment should have looked up 1994's Susan Smith case before associating race with child murder.]

Re: article titled, "World Bank pledges $900 million in flood aid to Pakistan": "Helping any Muslim controlled country, is like a U.S. soldier who sees a wounded enemy soldier on the ground and (being compassionant) [sic] decides to reach down and lift him up for medical treatment. Then, as soon as the person is lifted, the booby trapped bomb underneath him goes off killing him and many fellow soldiers as a result of his (compassion)and stupidity. Only a fool will be compassionate to his enemy. Kill them where they stand, or lay for that matter. The Pakistanie's [sic] harbor the taliban, fellow muslims. Muslims supply money to the Taliban, fellow muslims. Do we owe them any donations? Yes. a quick bullet to the head." This comment received 5 "thumbs up" and 0 "thumbs down." At the same time, another more intelligent comment--"Taliban terrorists? It's innocent people who are dieing [sic] from this flood, such as farmers, women and children"--received 3 "thumbs down" and only 1 "thumbs up."

"He [President Obama] will never reform them [Fannie and Freddie Mac] as it disperses too much money to the black race." Comment in article titled, "Obama seeks new design for housing, Fannie/Freddie." 8 "thumbs up" and 5 "thumbs down."

"My son bought his 1st home last summer and still has yet to receive his $8,000.00 credit, in fact it was denied. So a 25 yr old man hurried to buy a house for this extension and government decided he didn't qualify, Maybe because he was white?" Same article, 6 "thumbs up" and 1 "thumbs down."

I will stop there, but I hope you see the problem. As you expand, you should be careful that your quality control doesn't deteriorate. I once saw a baiting, anti-Muslim post you featured prominently on your website. I've come to expect that kind of sensationalism from Rep. Rick Lazio, Rep. Peter T. King, and their ilk, but I expect Yahoo not to lend its imprimatur to such content. And I don't want to see overtly hate-filled messages of any kind when I go to your website. Is that so much to ask? How hard can it be to hire several hundred part-timers to monitor and screen the comments pages to ensure your website becomes a more civilized place? I know you won't get as many "page hits" and you'll be accused of being elitist, but several other media websites already monitor comments, and I bet their users actually spend time reading the comments.

And yes, I know you have a dilemma, because many people like reading the comments sections precisely because of all the idiots who post. Even so, for those of us who aren't as easily amused, there must be a way for us to read comments without being subjected to idiots. (See idea above, about breaking up Yahoo into different sections tailored to different sets of people.)

If you really want to think outside the box, try this: administer a worldwide, voluntary multiple-choice test to Yahoo users. Make it a big event, where you either have people take the test at physical sites, or you give users passwords and allow everyone to take the test at the exact same time online. Include content from many different disciplines, such as economics (What is a positive externality?);sports (Which team did Barry Sanders play for?); entertainment (Who is married to Jennifer Lopez?); and so on. Based on the number of correct answers, you can then offer users an option of joining exclusive pages tailored to their knowledge and interests. If you handle this right, someone's Yahoo test score could become part of America's rite of passage, just like someone's SAT score. Besides, wouldn't advertisers love gaining access to more specific groups of users?

Problem 3: Videos that manage to play the commercials perfectly fine, but when it comes to the actual content, the video freezes. Also, videos that lack captioning, which excludes millions of people worldwide.

Before dealing with the comments problem, you can fix an easier issue--namely, your video streaming (especially in the sports section). In order for advertisers to trust your site, they need to know that users will click on Yahoo videos and watch their commercials. When users click on Yahoo videos, they expect to see something fun, unique, and relevant.

Yahoo's responsibility isn't just to offer interesting videos and clips, but to ensure that both the ad and the content play properly. You're doing well when it comes to streaming the commercials, but not when it comes to the actual content. I can't tell you how many times I've sat through a commercial, hoping to see a fun sports moment, only to have the video freeze on me. If my computer can play your commercials perfectly, why does it have a problem playing the actual content? If you don't fix this problem, I won't click on any of your videos. After all, fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice...

Also, why doesn't Yahoo offer closed captioning for its videos? Hulu, Youtube, TED, and Google all manage to caption their online videos. Why can't you do the same thing?

Problem 4: Lack of Focus. Who are you?

Right now, you're the John Dewey of the Internet. You've dumbed it down so everyone can play. That was great ten years ago, but it's no longer sufficient to be a mere content aggregator. To be fair, one of the best sites on the internet today is Rivals.com, your college sports page. Unfortunately, Rivals.com seems to be your only example of consistently interesting Yahoo-generated content.

When you do have excellent content, we notice. A long time ago, you had an article following up with the players on George Mason's 2006 "Cinderella" basketball team. Josh Peter's article was one of the best articles I've ever read, and you owned the content. So what did you do with Mr. Peter? I have no idea. He's still listed as one of your reporters, but he hasn't written anything since November 2009. Instead of giving Mr. Peter (or Michael Silver) major publicity, someone decided to give Dan Wetzel valuable virtual estate on Yahoo Sports--even though the quality of his "reporting" and writing has been steadily declining (perhaps because he was busy writing a book or two).

Listen, when you find quality, you need to keep it. With a little more placement and internal advertising, you could have the next Bill Simmons. I mean, you're the 800 lb gorilla when it comes to online eyeballs. If you have a great writer, you can take him or her to the next level. And if you hire good journalists and writers, at some point, Rivals.com could be the next ESPN.com. You just need to dream big and aim high, and unfortunately, I don't see that visionary attitude right now at Yahoo.

I happen to be available part-time if you want someone to help you with quality control or editing, but journalism majors nationwide will work for peanuts and resume filler. Why aren't you cherry-picking the best ones and using them? Bring back journalism so Americans don't have to rely exclusively on Bloomberg, the BBC, the Christian Science Monitor, and Al-Jazeera for real news. And yes, I know you're ahead of me in this regard. You're already using articles from Seeking Alpha and the Christian Science Monitor to bolster your content, but you could be doing so much more. You don't even need to focus on journalism to expand your content. Why not have a site similar to The Onion? The writers from that website probably aren't making tons of money, so why can't Yahoo create unique content if The Onion can do it?

That's all I have for now, Ms. Bartz. I used to have a small crush on former President/CFO Susan Decker, but it turns out, she wasn't the One. If Yahoo is the Matrix, then shareholders are hoping you are Neo. Please don't fail us. The internet needs you, journalism needs you, and America's readers need you. I know it's in you. And I know that some people will be afraid of change, even though being a generalized content aggregator does not confer a competitive advantage in today's online marketplace.

I don't know the future. I'm not here to tell you how the internet revolution is going to end. I'm just hoping you're going to show me a world without the old Yahoo. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. How we get there is a choice we leave to you.


Matthew Rafat

Disclosure: at the time of publication, I had an insignificant number of Yahoo (YHOO) shares.

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