Yahoo’s big mistake

Yahoo made the mistake too many other media companies made: It thought that the internet was a medium. It’s not. The internet is a place. It’s a means, not a medium.

I’ve said it often before and I’ll say in once more: Yahoo is the last old-media company. It controlled content — made or licensed — and spent money to market to bring people in to see it and then forced ads down their eyeballs until they left. Meanwhile, Google distributed itself anywhere and everywhere. The ad on this page is the pioneering commercial widget of the internet; it makes this page part of Google without Google having to make, market, or pay for it. Google is a platform. Yahoo is a portal. Google is a network. Yahoo is a destination. Google is a tool. Yahoo is a thing.

Yahoo hired a media man in Terry Semel and he gave them just what they wanted, the two legs of his old business’ stool: content and distribution. Listen to him here, two years ago:

Yahoo ‘is all about content,” he says. . . . He says media companies should look to Yahoo as a distribution platform.

I’ve also said this, too, before and will say it once more: We debated for decades whether content or distribution was king but it turns out that neither is. The community is the kingdom. The question companies should be asking on the internet — the question Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg answered — is what they can do to help that community do what it wants to do. Zuckerberg thinks of Facebook not as a media or content company but as a software company. Software enables us.

So now Semel is out as CEO. He took Yahoo from its first life as a directory and did, indeed, turn it into a media company with considerable traffic and real ad sales — that was his job and he did it well. But that wasn’t sufficient. Being a media company isn’t sufficient. Semel couldn’t get Yahoo into the next life. Oh, yes, he bought Flickr and and OddPost, in the hopes that you could buy some Web 2.0 and it would average out the 1.0 in you. But all that does is get you to 1.1. It takes more than that.

So now Jerry Yang is in charge. I met him years ago, in the early days of Yahoo, in a business meeting, and he said then that Yahoo’s job was to get you in and out of the service — and onto what you really wanted — as soon as possible. Well, that sure changed. In the Semel era, and even before, the job became to get you in and keep you in as long as possible.

But the job should have nothing to do with getting us to Yahoo. It should be about Yahoo getting itself to us. Can Yahoo — can Yang — blow itself up and splatter across the web, a la Google? I don’t know. I fear that Yahoo is just the next AOL: the next has-been. Now you may say to me, well, Jeff, you talk about the web being about tools, functionality, and community, and doesn’t that describe AOL at its height? Yes, except that AOL didn’t see that as its business; that was just the cherry on the sundae and the ice cream to them was distribution: a closed network. Again, AOL, thought like a media company, only the other half of media: more distribution than content. AOL never knew where its real value lay. It was in the people. The community. I said long ago that if AOL cut itself up and let us all use and even pay for any part of it, it could have exploded. Instead, it demanded that we come into its closed world. And it failed. I stopped using AOL a decade ago because I had so many other, better, more open alternatives.

I haven’t used Yahoo either in ages, maybe years. I complained that they shut off my email and killed my identity — my identity — because I didn’t follow their rules and use it enough. I can’t remember the last time I went to Yahoo. And it didn’t come to me. When I last tried to use Flickr they yelled at me for not having a Yahoo identity (well, I would have one if you hadn’t killed it). I don’t need Yahoo. It needs me.

What would I do with Yahoo? I’d probably sell it. Just as newspaper companies are now huddling with their former enemies, Monster and Hot Jobs, so may media companies want to take over Yahoo and grow old together. Microsoft never could figure out its media strategy — when it never should have wanted one; it should have been the company to figure out the web of tools first — and so they could stumble off together, blind leading blind. AOL and Yahoo might as well merge. Cable companies might forestall their fate as closed networks while playing with Yahoo; spurned by TV networks now distributing themselves freely online, the MSOs need a younger wife. But all that only forestalls the inevitable shrinkage of Yahoo as a media entity.

OK, here’s what I’d do with Yahoo: I’d pull a reverse Facebook, a Zuckerberg with a twist. Facebook opened itself up as a platform for people to come in and do things there. I’d open up Yahoo as a platform for people to export instead. I would turn absolutely every — every — piece of Yahoo into a widget any of us could export and use on our own sites. I’d take all the functionality there and enable people to enrich their own sites, to build on top of it. . . .

On second thought . . . naw, nevermind . . .