For the past two years the Internet company Yahoo is under immense pressure: The management led by CEO Marissa Mayer, in office since 2012, is working hard to reinvigorate the core online business of the company with new up-to-date technologies; and furthermore, creating more value, mainly from advertising. The board of directors is seeking to give management more time to find a way out of the difficult times, however it is struggling to fend off pressures from activist investors who demand a break-up of the company in order to salvage the real value they see captured in Yahoo through its stakes in external companies — Alibaba of China and Yahoo Japan. Yahoo is in a delicate and complex situation, carrying a danger that consumers-users will be left behind in the final business outcome.
The key criticism of Yahoo concerns the poor performance of its online advertising system, lagging behind other platforms such as Google (search) and Facebook (social media). The core business of the company entails its search engine and media (news in various domains), acting as sources of income from advertising (e.g., display ads, sponsored results). Display advertising is now active also in Yahoo’s Mail (e-mail service).
Underlying the poor financial performance of the advertising system are mainly two problems: (a) inconvenient and technologically outdated utilities and tools for advertisers when placing their orders for online ads (1); (b) a relatively low volume of search queries by Internet users, particularly far behind Google, and insufficient returns by visitors to the different sections of Yahoo websites. For example, according to figures revealed by the New-York Times, only ten percent (10%) out of one billion monthly visitors of Yahoo websites return every day, suggesting weak brand attachment; the reported figure for Facebook is 65% (2). It may start from failing to persuade more Internet users to make Yahoo a start homepage on their browsers.
Yahoo may be suffering, nevertheless, from a broader problem of generating income from its online services. That is, the company should not rely only on income from advertising but create additional schemes that can generate income from use of its online services. Yahoo could monetise services, for instance, by charging users on premium plans (e.g., allowing extended storage capacity, more advanced tools or features, increased customisation, access to extended content). Yahoo may further not have a wide enough range of services on which it can charge premiums from registered (logged-in) users. Rightfully, companies are reluctant to ask customers to pay for online services, but that may be an unaffordable privilege, as in the case of Yahoo. Moreover, charging price premiums for enhanced services is legitimate and can contribute to higher perceived quality or value to consumers.
The complexity of the situation can partly be explained by the claim of investors that a greater portion of market value of Yahoo arises from its stakes in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan than from its own activity. Yahoo originally (2005) had a stake of ~24% in the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba. Shortly before an initial public offering (IPO) of Alibaba in September 2014, that stake was valued $40 billion. During the IPO, Yahoo sold 40% of that stake as agreed with Alibaba to the latter’s requirement. Yahoo eventually collected more than $9bn, available to award shareholders or re-invest in the company (how funds were actually used is unpublished). The remaining stake of Yahoo in Alibaba (~15%) was worth some $30bn in December 2015. Investors thought that not enough value stemmed from Yahoo’s genuine activity before Alibaba’s IPO, and some seem to believe that is nonetheless apparent after the IPO.
The first two years of Mayer as CEO enjoyed a sense of improvement and optimism. Until the IPO of Alibaba, Yahoo acquired more than forty technology companies to bring fresh methods, tools and skills to the company. The share price of Yahoo climbed from a low of under $20 to above $30 by the end of 2013 and reached $50 in late 2014. But after Alibaba’s IPO, tensions with investors, especially the activist ones, escalated as patience with Mayer as well as the board was running thin. The share price also started to decline back to $30 during 2015 (it recovered to ~$36 since January 2016).
It must be noted that the board of directors together with Mayer did try to find solutions that would satisfy the investors while saving the core business of Yahoo. One plan considered was to sell the remaining stake of Yahoo in Alibaba but that solution was abandoned due to concerns about a looming large tax liability. Another solution, championed by Mayer, was to put the core media and search business of Yahoo on sale in one piece, but that plan was also just recently suspended as the process failed to mature. The most serious prospective buyer was the US telecom company Verizon; they were thinking of merging the activity of Yahoo with that of AOL, acquired last year, but executives were worried about the company’s ability to pull together such an integration effort in a short time (3).
- Update note (July 2016): After all, a deal was done with Verizon to buy Yahoo for $4.8bn (excluding its stakes in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan.)
In the second part of this article I examine the display and organization of Yahoo’s websites with a user-consumer viewpoint in mind — visual layout, sections and services on the website, composition of content, links, menus and other objects. The examination is focused more on the content and services Yahoo provides to its users rather than its advertising.
Yahoo runs multiple versions of its website in different countries and languages. The major part of the review is centered on the website of Yahoo in the United Kingdom as a pivot exemplar. References will be subsequently made to other versions. Nevertheless, all of the additional websites visited (8) highly resemble the UK website in appearance and composition. Through the examination I intend to argue that Yahoo has not organized and designed the homepages of its website versions appropriately to expose users to, and give them the necessary inducement to access, some of its core services that would also be important sources of income. However, beyond the homepages, I also relate to the ‘portfolio’ of media topical sections and services that comprise the websites.
Two services of Yahoo are primary assets: the search engine (Yahoo! Search) and the e-mail service (Yahoo! Mail). Both follow the company’s website in substance from its early days. They are essential components of Yahoo’s brand. The search facility is the gate to the enormous content on the Internet. The e-mail service with its mailbox management utilities is at the foundations of the company’s invaluable customer base. Both have advanced over the years and added features, although there is argument over the nature of progress particularly with regard to the search engine. A third additional asset of Yahoo is the media content of news stories and videos in various domains delivered on the website. On the left-hand of the homepage appears a sidebar with links to services and news topics on the website; a ‘global’ heading bar appears on top of any webpage on Yahoo’s site.
As important and interesting as the news media content may be, its preview takes grossly too much space of the homepage. Conversely, the search window for initial queries, while on top, is marginalised on the page, nearly “drowning” in the news content. It sends a message to visitors that this feature is secondary or less to media content. It is little wonder that on-face Internet users perceive Google as the universal search engine (Yahoo has been relying on the powers of search engines of Google and previously Microsoft’s Bing in recent years). The icon-link to the e-mail service is not in a much better position at the top right corner. Even though three links for Mail appear on the homepage — the icon right to the search window, on top of the vertical sidebar, and on left side of the heading bar — none of these positions is central. The allocation of space on the homepage is not reasonably proportional between these three assets. It suggests that Yahoo has become a media company and has practically discounted its two other assets.
The sidebar added to the website in the past two years is a welcome contribution as it helps to quickly familiarise with or easily find some key services and news topics on Yahoo’s site. Nevertheless, icons-links for those services and topics could receive better attention and salience in users’ eyes and minds if they were arranged in a central area of the page adjacent to the Search window and Mail icon (e.g., beneath them). It would give Yahoo an opportunity to promote services or topics with a greater income potential vis-à-vis visitors’ interests and utility in using particular services. For example, the online cloud-based service Flickr for storing, editing and showcasing photos is hardly noticed on the head-bar, and if at all on the sidebar (Flickr was acquired by Yahoo in 2005). If site users could also see more instantly and clearly what functional services (non-news) are offered by Yahoo, it might be better understood why there is a Sign-In option separate from Mail.
Extra feature-services such as Contacts, Calendar, Notepad and Messenger (chat) are already included in Mail.
Yahoo highlights on its homepage general news, sport, entertainment and finance. On the ‘homepage’ of the news section one can find more categories such as UK, World, Science & Tech, Motoring and Celebrity. Links to some of them appear on the sidebar of the UK homepage (e.g., Cars [Motoring], Celebrity). Interestingly, some news/media sections do behave as more autonomous sites and some have a different layout with a visual graphic display of tiles — Parenting, Style and Movies. (In the Italian version, Beauty and Celebrity sections also exhibit a tile ‘art’ display.)
The news headlines with the snippets (briefs) are useful but those do not necessarily belong on the homepage in that long a list. The ‘ribbon’ of images for selected stories would most appropriately fit on the homepage with a focal story changing on top — that is all that needs to remain on the homepage (with some enhancements such as choice of category) while the additional headlines are delegated to the News ‘homepage’. In the final display of the homepage, a concise and elegant arrangement should include the Search window and Mail/ Sign-In icons, surrounded by a News showcase and a palette of selected services or media topics.
A visitor has to look deeper into the website to trace additional services that may be interesting and useful. A few examples: (1) The Finance (news and more) section includes a personalised utility ‘My Portfolios’ for managing investments; (2) On a page enlisting more services one can find Groups (discussion forums) and Shopping. Other features or services on a sidebar or head-bar refer to Weather, Mobile (downloading Yahoo apps), and Answers (subdivision of Search — peer-to-peer Q&A exchanges).
When the homepage of UK website is compared with other country and language websites of Yahoo, it is mostly noticeable that some of the links on the sidebar and head-bar may vary, apparently accounting for regional and cultural differences in public interests. Countries may also be affiliated or in co-operation with different local content and service providers. For instance: Italy assigns more importance to Style, Beauty and Celebrity, also having more invested topical sections; France has a section on real-estate (Immobilier) in affiliation with BFM TV); Australia has a TV section affiliated with PLUS7); and in Germany the Weather and Flickr services are represented on both sidebar and head-bar. It is further observed that the sidebar in Yahoo Australia includes many more links than in other site versions.
Regarding the US website, some differences can be marked. First, subject titles of appear above each news headline. Second, a reference to the social blogspace site Tumblr appears on the head-bar (in addition to Flickr) — it appears also on the site of Australia but not on the other sites visited (Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo in 2013). Third, the US site chose to mention on its sidebar Shopping and Politics.
The Yahoo websites exhibit anomalies implying that the company refrains from promoting some of its own in-house or subsidiary services. For instance, Flickr and Tumblr are sidelined, and the latter is exclusive to just a couple of countries. The ‘Shopping’ product search for attractive retailer offers (powered by Nextag) is more often hidden, and Yahoo homepages provide links to eBay and Amazon.
In order to design in practice the most appropriate and effective composition and layout of the homepage, Yahoo may apply usability tests, eye tracking, and possibly also tracking of mouse movements and clicks. These three methodological approaches can be used in parallel or even simultaneously to derive findings that can support and complement each other in guiding the design process. Attention obviously should be paid to visual appeal of the page appearance in the final design. As suggested above, however, emphasis should be directed to the content and services provided by Yahoo as opposed to the advertising space.
Notwithstanding, the homepage is just the start of the journey of a visitor on the website. Of course much depends on the quality of services and content in determining how long a visitor will stay on the site. For example, how the mail, e-commerce (shopping), or photo service platform compare with competition. Particularly with respect to the search engine, continued utilisation relies on relevance, credibility and timeliness (historical to up-to-date) of results generated.
Yahoo provides specialised searches of websites and pages, images, videos, answers, products and more. Yet the company acquired in the past the Altavista engine that was advantageous in retrieving higher-quality and academic-level information sources and materials but it was apparently submerged without leaving a trace; and as indicated earlier, Yahoo has turned to stronger capabilities of competitors at the expense of developing more of their own. Marissa Mayer aims alternately to create a leverage by developing a powerful intelligent search engine for mobile devices in a mobile-friendly site/app. Even though the mobile-driven approach can be a move in the right direction for Yahoo, it may not resolve the suggested problems inherent in the online website, and skeptics doubt that the company has the skills and resources in its current state to accomplish those goals.
Yahoo has a lot at stake. It should not rely on users to know how to get to its services independently or to search for their Internet addresses. The site, online or mobile, has to give a hand and show users the way to the services it wants them most to visit and apply, and there is no better place to start than on the site’s homepage. The solutions needed are not just about technology but in the domain of marketing strategy and user-consumer online and mobile behaviour. Yet, looking at how events roll at Yahoo, the decisions made could be driven by business and financial considerations above the heads of users-consumers.
- The lessons for Yahoo should now be learnt by Verizon as it intends to merge between functions and capabilities of Yahoo and AOL, and probably rebrand them.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
(1) “Marissa’s Moment of Truth”, Jess Hempel, Fortune Europe Edition, 14 May 2014 pp. 38-44.
(2) “Yahoo’s Suitors Are in the Dark About its Financial Details”, International New-York Times, 16-17 April 2016.