Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

The One-Year Report Card of Yahoo’s Carol Bartz–Product Innovation: D From Readers, A From Sheila and C- From BoomTown

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Yesterday, BoomTown asked a question on Twitter about what grade people thought I should give Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz for product innovation.

I began handing out marks to Bartz last week, after she gave herself a B- for overall performance for the year since she took over the troubled Internet giant.

But I decided to be more specific, splitting the grades for Yahoo (YHOO) in 2009 into five categories: Management, financials, product innovation, deal-making and moxie.

So far, I have given her an A- for management and a C+ for financials.

But I resorted to the lazy reporter trick of using Twitter, because I was torn when it comes to product innovation.

One main reason: Bartz inherited a company that has been suffering from a serious and chronic case of product constipation, after many years of leading the Web in new and innovative offerings.

In fact, from its amazing content products to its early attempts at personalization to its way-ahead-of-the-pack email to its cool design breakthroughs, Yahoo had always been the one to beat when it comes to the consumer Internet in Silicon Valley.

But that has decidedly not been the case for many years now, even as other key players have been very busy inventing some cool stuff.

Consider: Facebook with The Wall, News Feed, pokes and friending; Google (GOOG) with Chrome, Android and a plethora of major search innovations; Amazon (AMZN) with Kindle, Prime, EC2, S3; Twitter (the whole dang idea of it); and Apple (AAPL) with the iPod, the iPhone and, soon, the iPad–have you heard of them?

And–yes–even Microsoft has jumped in with a saucy new Bing search service in 2009, and it has been introducing features regularly, despite its weensie market share.

innovate-or-die

Product innovation also includes keeping a sharp eye out for new companies to snap up, and Yahoo used to do that, grabbing innovative start-ups, such as Flickr, Del.icio.us and many others.

But Yahoo made both of those purchases in 2005, and the entrepreneurs from those start-ups have since exited under a cloud.

In 2009, Yahoo made a few minor acquisitions, focusing instead on shedding and closing down former purchases it could not successfully integrate.

That kind of cleaning up is doubtlessly a good thing for Yahoo, and I did not think it completely fair to ding Bartz for a situation that obviously requires a lot of fixing, made even harder since there have been a lot of other issues to deal with at the company.

Nonetheless, as the year ticked on and other Web players marched ahead with all due speed into a range of new arenas, it has become increasingly worrisome to hear not a peep out of Yahoo or see any true spark of innovation, even as Bartz hired a passel of new execs, most of whom have more enterprise than consumer Internet experience.

While Yahoo did complete a significant overhaul of its homepage and launch a new marketing push, competitors such as AOL (AOL) and Microsoft did much the same.

As to the variety of key fixes across the site that should happen as a matter of course at any company, all of which were necessary–that’s great. But while Yahoo is in the midst of a brand revitalization, it simply does not get credit for keeping its existing properties properly updated.

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Thus, my grade comes down to a C- in product innovation, since I cannot point to a single unique and striking innovation from Yahoo in 2009. Neither can I call its two very decent acquisitions–photo organization start-up Xoopit and Arab Internet portal Maktoob–game-changing in any way whatsoever.

My grade is better than the dozens of suggestions I got from readers in tweets, direct messages and emails, most of which rated Yahoo’s innovations effort of late at a D or D- grade (with one F–Hello, Keith R!).

Wrote one smart techie I know well, in a typical sentiment:

I’ll give them a D for product innovation. They have outsourced search to Microsoft. They made so many small, smart acquisitions over the years, but they killed them first and now looking to divest every one of them. They want to get into the social game, but have had Delicious, MyBlogLog, Upcoming for all these years and did nothing with it. They incubated Y! Pipes, same result.

And now their big game is social activity aggregation. They have the right assets–mail and messenger are still popular, news is still popular and they just renewed their deal with AP, users are still on Flickr, don’t agree with their home page strategy but with that and the Facebook Connect integration, Y! has the potential to know a lot about a user. They’d then be able sell targeted display ads for a premium, that Facebook has been (so far) reluctant to do. We’ll see how well they execute this year. I’m not very hopeful though. They have lost their product DNA.

We’ll have to see about that in 2010.

And, to be fair, Yahoo PR exec Sheila Tran respectfully disagreed with my assessment and sent me a cogent and well-argued email about how Yahoo did a lot better in this area than you might think, awarding it an A.

Here is her email in its entirety, so judge for yourself:

High-level Points

· Product innovation is not just about launching “new” products. We focused on continually innovating on our core/leading products/properties.
· Making these updates are key to our brand revitalization and core to our success moving forward.
· Other competitors may have updated some similar products this year but they don’t have the reach and leadership we have. Our updates in several areas such as the homepage, search, mail, mobile and messenger were differentiated from others.
· We have innovations that span across the consumer AND advertising experiences
· We’re focused on innovating globally ie launch of Meme

Product/Property

New Homepage

· In the US, we’ve seen a 12% year over year increase in UU’s on our homepage (Dec 08-09, comScore).
· The web is open and in 2009, Yahoo!’s homepage opened up, too. With the integration of the Yahoo! Application Platform and the new homepage (September 2009), we gave developers the ability to get in front of one of the largest daily audiences on the web.
· The new homepage takes the number of codebases from 33 to 1. The benefits of moving towards a single code base are many–faster time to market, less duplication of efforts, and a more robust technology platform to operate from, to name just a few.
· We expanded the use of our content optimization technology to the Today module, helping fill the page with more relevant and engaging content. While this isn’t always apparent to users, our content optimization algorithms work behind the scenes to help us fine-tune how we identify and display the most popular content. We are now testing how we can use the engine to help us personalize content to peoples’ interests–for example, if you’re a sports junkie we might increase the amount of sports news you see when you visit the Yahoo! homepage.

Mail
· Launch of open apps which is aligned with what we have done across the homepage and search.

Messenger
· Yahoo! Messenger has seen video instant messaging minute use grow 3x since its introduction last year.

Search
· Launch of SearchPad: online personal research assistance when people search. Only one that offers this
· Continued success with SearchMonkey and BOSS which resulted in a differentiated search experience on Yahoo! Search and outside of Yahoo!
. BOSS: more than 30 million queries a day
. SearchMonkey: live in more than 23 markets, more than 70 million enhanced searchmonkey results are viewed daily
· Launch of the new search results page: open apps, blended results, 3 column look and feel which google then announced, enhanced results with search monkey
· Launch of video and image search refiners: no other competitor has taken our approach which really provides a more relevant experiences for people.

Artist Pages
· Launch of the artist pages consumer experience that aggregates the best music products, services, information, and content the Web has to offer about more than 500,000 artists. Pulls together “best of the Web” music products such as iTunes, Amazon.com, Last.fm, Rhapsody, Pandora and others in one place.

Connected TV
· In 2009, Yahoo! revolutionized the TV experience by making the connection between TV viewing and the Internet a reality and signing distribution partnerships to embedding the Yahoo! Widget Engine directly in TVs from Samsung, Sony, LG and Vizio.
· In 2010, we continue to expand partner distribution globally (new partnerships with Hisense, MIPS, Viewsonic and Sigma), and move beyond the TV (into set top boxes, blu-ray players and more.) We also opened the WDK and introduced new Widgets providing users with thousands of content channels.

Mobile
· New Y! Mobile Homepage–33 countries across 1,900 devices; tighter PC to mobile synergies (http://m.yahoo.com)
. Over the past two years, we have seen the usage of our homepage more than triple – globally. (Yahoo! Internal Data)
· Adds voice search for iPhone and increases availability across other mobile devices
. Emerging markets are a key growth driver; for instance, in Indonesia we see nearly twice as many more mobile search users than we do on the PC. (Yahoo! Internal Data)
· iPhone / BlackBerry Apps for Yahoo! Finance, Yahoo! Fantasy Football and Flickr (iphone only, as there was already a BB app for Flickr)
· New Y! Mobile Homepage for US Hispanics
· Continue to sign strategic partnerships for leading mobile services, including Chunghwa Telecom and o2 Germany (mobile search, displacing Google)
. We have over 100 mobile operator and OEM partnerships around the world.

Advertising
· Rich Ads in Search: Most innovative way to bring display benefits to search and launched before any other search engine could have.
· Search Retargeting: Yahoo is the only media company that can leverage display and search effectively, as such Search Retargeting (uses a recent search query to serve up a relevant display ad) is something only we can do and do well.
· Innovative Strategy: Right Media going upstream. We have the largest ad exchange, in 2009 we decided to make it all about premium to have our exchange community be more appealing to big brands and publishers.

Acquisitions
· Xoopit–2008 Hack day winner. Brings phenomenal photo organization, improved photo sharing, and the serendipity of discovering forgotten photos to Yahoo! Mail.
· Maktoob–Acquisition accelerates Yahoo!’s strategy of expanding in high-growth emerging markets where we believe Yahoo! has unparalleled opportunity to become the destination of choice for consumers.

[The C- photo is from Yahoo's still-terrific Flickr.]


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