Mike Isaac

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New Yahoo COO Henrique De Castro Hints at the Future of the Web Portal (Pro Tip: Get Personal!)

Hubert Burda Media/DLD Yahoo COO Henrique De Castro, right, in conversation at the DLD Munich conference

Yahoo’s problem: It’s a king of the portal age of the Web, in a time where we’re shifting away from reliance on the portal as we know it. And the big question for those long involved with Yahoo is just how it plans to deal with that major shift.

We haven’t heard many specifics from Yahoo, under the new Marissa Mayer regime, to date. But at the DLD conference in Munich, Germany, on Monday, newly dubbed COO Henrique De Castro gave the tiniest bit of insight into his vision of the portal to come.

“The desktop portal needs to transform itself,” De Castro said. “The personalization is not there, the tech is not there, and generalist portals are losing traffic.”

He wouldn’t talk specifics about Yahoo, unfortunately, citing that he’s only been in the job for two months. (Weak, I know.) But it’s obvious that Yahoo — along with other titans of the portal age like MSN and AOL — is undergoing this “waning portal power” problem.

All this dodging of specifics is frustrating for the the big media ad companies involved with Yahoo, who all want to know just how Yahoo plans to turn around its legacy content destination site — which, though still a powerhouse, is losing steam — into something competitive with today’s market.

It’s especially relevant considering some of Yahoo’s most recent stats; according to private ComScore data obtained by Kara Swisher, Yahoo’s Homepage, Mail and Search products all saw significant year-on-year declines in the remaining months of 2012.

“The winners,” according to De Castro, “are the ones who will aggregate premium quality content at scale, and distribute it in a personalized way.”

Okay then. Translation? None from Henrique, but here’s what I’m imagining. Yahoo’s homepage does a decent enough job of combining aggregated content from outside Web sites, and mixing it with Yahoo-produced media. I’d imagine the next iterations of Yahoo’s main properties do a far better job of personalization — through individual user profile upgrades, incorporation of more social content into users’ media diet and the like.

Update 3 pm CET: As my pal Jason Del Rey reminded me on Twitter, Yahoo has been working on getting personalization right since before the Mayer era at Yahoo — specifically through efforts under VP of Search and Personalization Mike Kerns, who leads the charge with Yahoo’s Social Bar.

Though De Castro admits, in a general, non-Yahoo-specific way, that the technology for key personalization isn’t there yet for these portal sites. Perhaps that’s where Marissa Mayer’s appetite for outside acquisitions comes into play?

And before a company can even think of tackling mobile — which, mind you, is one of Yahoo’s massive weaknesses that yields relatively no monetized fruit compared to the rest of the company’s properties — you first need to nail down personalization, he said. It’s table stakes.

“Once you do that, and the content is personalized and relevant, then you can do the same for different platforms,” De Castro said. “It’s not so much desktop verus mobile, it’s what is the future of the portal on the web?”

What is it indeed, Henrique? We’ll wait for you and Marissa to tell us more come next earnings call — or hopefully sooner than that.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald