Kara Swisher

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Yahoo Finally Rolls Out New Homepage to the Masses–and, Drum Roll, It's Good (Plus Screenshots)

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Although it’s not news that Yahoo has been readying a new version of its homepage and has spent a lot of time doing so–in fact, it’s gone all Handy Manny with a whole lot of test renovations–the Internet giant begins the massive rollout of it tomorrow.

The official launch of what was code-named “Metro,” which Yahoo had previously said was coming in the fall, will take place on an opt-in “beta” basis for the hundreds of millions of users in the U.S. and will be extended to France, the U.K. and India later this week.

When users log in, they will get a choice–for now, there will be no forcing it–to switch over to the new version, which Yahoo’s Tapan Bhat, SVP of Integrated Consumer Experiences, said in an interview with me today by phone, is the “the most fundamental change to the homepage ever.”

And, indeed, the new look is much different, even than previous launch candidates, featuring an almost complete rejiggering of the look and feel of the most important page at Yahoo (YHOO) and one of the most trafficked on the Internet.

The change is an important one for Yahoo, since its front page is perhaps its most powerful calling card to users and advertisers, as well as to Wall Street. Its homepage gets 330 million unique visitors every month.

Yahoo has redone its homepage many times since its founding in the mid-1990s (you can see the various incarnations of it here), but this new design is perhaps the most dramatic.

(See screenshots of the new regular page and one with a Facebook app featured below; click on the images to make them larger.)

The most striking change is a prominent left-side “My Favorites” area, with 65 specially designed applications that users can customize, including giving a quick hovering glimpse of email, stocks and of third-party sites like Facebook.

Not quite a dashboard or exactly a social networking page, it feels a little as if Yahoo took a browser tab or a toolbar, put it in a vertical format and gave it some great functionality.

Full disclosure: All Things Digital, as well as several other Dow Jones news properties, are in its special alphabetical apps gallery, although I had no idea it would be there.

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Yahoo also allows users to create such widgets on the fly from most any Web site and they can have up to 36 apps on the homepage.

There is advertising in the boxes that pop up when hovering over these apps, which is a way of dealing with the issue of purposely sending users away from Yahoo rather than keeping them there. It is a much better version of that trap.

“We want to be the center of people’s lives online and want to do it in an open, innovative way, all while providing a compelling experience,” said Bhat. “It marks the beginning of a renaissance of Yahoo, a renaissance where every pixel matters.”

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After looking over the history of Yahoo’s homepages since 1994 (see them all here), it has pretty much told a story of a site with increasingly smaller font sizes and more stuff packed on it.

“It had nothing to do with the user, but what Yahoo wanted the user to do,” said Bhat, rather frankly.

Thus, he said, everything going forward will focus on what the user wants, which, he explained, essentially boils down to a “my world” and “the world” outlook.

In the my-world bucket: Email, favorite Web sites, stock info. In the the-world: General news, search, what’s hot.

But, unlike its highly customized MyYahoo product, Bhat said that Yahoo wanted to make it easier for users to create a page where “there is destination for everything you are about in just a click or two.”

The programmed “Today” module remains, although users can indicate which kind of information–finance, news, entertainment–gets top billing.

The module is also localized, depending on the user.

“We wanted to provide broadcast and narrowcast in one place,” said Bhat.

That includes updating status, right from the homepage, including integration with social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.

But–in a very big mistake–there is no ability to update status to the popular microblogging service Twitter on this part of the homepage, as yet. You can make it an app, though, as Twitter can appear in your Yahoo updates.

And there is a big advertising module still on the right, along with a what’s-hot section. And, finally, there will also soon be complete two-way syncing with mobile devices, said Bhat.

Interestingly, although CEO Carol Bartz has often said internally that she does not like the color purple, which has been the company’s signature one since its founding, the main page keeps up the violet tradition with a lighter tone.

“Yahoo’s color is purple and it is known for that,” said Bhat (deftly not taking my delicious bait).

As to why it has taken so long to get its front page redone–it was originally set to debut late last year–Bhat noted that such a major shift of such a trafficked page was, well, complex.

“It involves bringing users along and also rewiring everything within Yahoo,” said Bhat, who gave Bartz credit for turbocharging the effort, since she first arrived at the troubled Silicon Valley icon in January and quickly put the brakes on the planned launch. “Now, we are looking at Yahoo holistically, all centered around the user.”

Time will tell if it is a success, but it is certainly a good and even innovative effort, in much the same spirit Microsoft (MSFT) has had with its new Bing search offering.

And while some might complain that it is not cutting-edge enough, it seems just the right amount of rejiggering and open feel for the mass of users it serves.

For Yahoo, at least when it comes to this one, change is indeed good.


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