The feminization of Yahoo News

The Thinker by Rodin

I have nothing against females as CEOs. It’s clear that females make up a tiny minority of corporate CEOs and members of corporate boards. Recent news reports suggest that progress on this front has stalled. But there are a few of them. Few have been more prominent in the news lately than Marissa Mayer, the relatively new 38-year-old CEO of Yahoo. She has been making a splash for herself, not just for leaving a job at Google to take on the troubled Yahoo, but also for her many changes to the relatively staid and unprofitable Yahoo, Inc., something of a great grandfather on the World Wide Web.  These included bringing a nursery into the office for her now year old son and requiring her employees to actually come into the office instead of telecommute.

Mayer though has a track record of success with Google and she’s proving adept so far at changing the dynamics at Yahoo. Her old employer Google must really miss her because she successfully led a number of divisions at Google, including some of its principle products: its search engine and GMail. Yahoo had been losing revenue and market share, but things are quickly turning around with Mayer in charge. Yahoo now gets more web traffic than Google again, no small feat and while not quite profitable again, it is making strides toward profitability. She has purchased the blogging site Tumblr and Yahoo’s stock price is rebounding. It has more than doubled during her brief tenure as CEO.

So she is doing good for stockholders and with her reputation she can probably turn around Yahoo, which is good because a World Wide Web mostly overseen by the benevolent Google overlord is not a healthy dynamic. She is getting more eyeballs and more interest from advertisers. Yahoo stockholders should be happy with her performance to date, and hope that they can keep her around.

I was a Yahoo fan from early on. At one time it was the only destination worth going to on the web. It was my home page for many years. It attempted to index the Internet, and actual humans were categorizing content. I’m old enough to remember what Yahoo really stands for (Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle). It was the first web site to do a really good job, in a 1995 kind of way, of helping us find stuff on this new medium called the Internet. For many years I had a Yahoo email account. But Yahoo proved not very agile as it aged, and various ineffective CEOs tended to make things worse.

I don’t go to Yahoo more often than I used to and use Google and its services even more than I used to, although I often feel guilty about it. But I do keep Yahoo News as my principle news page, or did until recently. It was a habit hard to break. The page was edited by actual human beings, rather than Google News, which is edited by a human-programmed computer algorithm. Considering Mayer also ran Google News, I expected Yahoo News might look a lot more like Google News. It is taking on some of its characteristics, including more personalization options. It is also, I am sorry to say, loading up the news site with a lot of fluff. This is making me very unhappy.

Stockholders are probably applauding this move to add these “human interest” stories. If you go to Yahoo News, you can’t possibly miss them, as they comprise about one of every three stories on its main page. It’s not quite National Enquirer stuff, but it’s a lot of Good Morning America-like stuff. In fact, Good Morning America (ABC) is one of their featured content providers. What do I mean by fluff? Well, there was the recent live broadcast of The Sound of Music on TV, and Yahoo News was all over it (it was mostly dissed by the critics). Is this really news? It probably gets a lot of clicks so it surely must be interesting to a lot of people. But no, this is not really news, except possibly in the category of entertainment news. It would be fodder for Variety’s web site. It’s not news in my book.

Perhaps it is just me. News to me is a newspaper like the Wall Street Journal or the Los Angeles Times. I expect to learn, not just what is happening right now that could affect my locality, my country, the world and me. I expect some in-depth reporting on an issue so I can understand the dynamics of the many pressing issues of the day. In short, I read news not to be entertained, but to gain knowledge. I need lots of facts and I need unbiased, in-depth understanding of these facts by reporters who sift through these issues and talk with leading authorities. I seek knowledge because to change the world I must understand not just how it behaves but why it behaves the way it does. News should have its pulse on the planet and should tell citizens like me who are reasonably informed more of what we need to know to stay informed.

I’m not getting much of this on Yahoo News anymore, and I hold Marissa Mayer to blame. I get lots of popcorn articles like this Sound of Music piffle, which today includes an ancillary story about the von Trapp’s mountain lodge in Stowe, Vermont. I get Dear Abby, now available only online at Yahoo but linked daily through its “news” page. I get stories about the lottery. And when I do deign to read an article that looks like real news, it is often short when I want depth. Worse, I get articles that aren’t articles at all, but you don’t know that until you click on it. Instead, it’s video that starts loading even if you don’t want it to load, and for which you have to “pay the freight” of an annoying commercial first. Expect more of the same because one of Marissa Mayer’s recent ideas is to hire Katie Couric as its “global anchor”. I expect lots of little fluff pieces like this and “lite-news” interwoven into its news site during the course of the day. It’s all part of the Yahoo experience, or something that Mayer is planning.

It may be successful for Yahoo and Mayer, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a news site because most of this is not really news. It’s marketing designed to attract eyeballs, perhaps making it a somewhat toned down version of Huffington Post, another site designed by a female overlord full of sauce but little relevant news.

I don’t like where this is leading. It will probably lead to profitability for Yahoo, but as far as leaving us citizens better informed, it’s a poor effort at best. There are plenty of other news sites out there including CNN and all the major networks, but most of these are becoming less newsworthy and saucier as well. Which leaves me looking for a real news site. There is the reliable and local site, but I get most of that content from my newspaper subscription. Ironically, I find myself getting most of my news from one of Mayer’s old projects: Google News. For the most part, unless you choose to delve into an area like Entertainment, its news is topical, relevant and in-depth articles tend to get priority. I find I like the algorithmic approach better than Mayer’s approach on Yahoo. I’m just hoping Google doesn’t try to sauce up its news algorithms.

Marissa, consider that public service may be part of Yahoo’s mission as well as enriching shareholders. How about a version of Yahoo News that is just news, instead of so much fluff, like maybe And while I am making suggestions, please get rid of the cutesy Yahoo News animated image in the top left corner of the site. And surely you have noticed that since your top menu bar is stuck on the top and you can’t avoid it, when you page down it hides some content, which means you have to cursor up or drag the window up a bit to read it. And you often have the same article, or a variation of it, on the same page. Can’t these be cleaned up?

It seems moot to me. I like your old product better, so I’m hanging out now on Google News.

Beware of buying Facebook stock

The Thinker by Rodin

Facebook finally made its stock market debut on Friday. The stock, initially available to select investors at $38 a share, closed at slightly above that price at $38.23 a share. Time will tell how investors really assess the stock. Most are probably waiting on the sidelines to see which way the wind blows.

Facebook won’t have to worry about me buying its stock. I strongly suspect the company is already massively overvalued at $38 a share. More importantly, I am not convinced that Facebook will be around in five or ten years. If the Internet has demonstrated anything, it is that web sites tend to be ephemeral. MySpace, which Facebook largely replaced, is a good example. Moreover, the web phenomenon of the moment is not Facebook, but Pinterest. You have to look hard to find web sites that have endured and remain profitable. Fifteen years ago Yahoo was phenomenal. Now it is hanging on, losing money, shedding employees and moving through CEOs at an alarming pace.

Facebook does have huge market share in part because it has figured out (it thinks) what people want in the way of a social networking site. It is already clear that it will never get everyone on the web. So many of its users are not active users. They have created accounts and then largely abandoned them, or check them out irregularly.  Of my 54 Facebook friends, on a weekly basis I see about 15 of them post or comment. Only three of them post regularly (every day or more). As I mentioned some time back, its user interface is confusing, although less so now than it was when I griped about it. Its privacy policies feel whimsical, giving you little confidence that your settings today will be there tomorrow or that your privacy policies will actually be handled correctly. Of course, Facebook is really about making money, so they keep trying new advertising strategies. The general thrust is to send you more ads and to make them more highly targeted. More and more, time on Facebook feels more like having a salesman regularly interrupt you while you are interacting with friends.

Its tepid IPO suggests stock analysts are right. To justify its price, it has to keep growing and more importantly it needs to convince advertisers that it can tie social networking and advertising together in a way that provides a unique advantage. General Motors gave it a try, and decided they just were not getting the return they wanted from advertising on Facebook, so they stopped using it.

Just how influential are your friends in convincing you to buy stuff anyhow? I like my friends just fine. I might see their dentist if they rave about him or her, because a personal recommendation makes choosing a dentist much simpler. But particularly with “friends” I rarely see in person, particularly those nebulous friends and friends of friends I have never actually met, and whose posts I mostly ignore, I doubt any attempt by Facebook to sell me stuff because my “friend” liked it will have any influence on me.

Facebook is also trying to make itself the center of your web experience. It is doing things like adding email (“messages”). Ideally, they hope you would never go anywhere on the web but Facebook. This of course defeats the whole purpose of the web, whose open nature is its key selling point. AOL tried this and failed spectacularly. Yet this is exactly the direction Facebook seems to be heading. Rather than be a utility on the web, it wants to largely replace the web by framing everything within a social context. However, the web is so much more than a social frame. It’s most about the ability to get information of interest.

I see Facebook as ultimately a limited business model simply because the premises on which it went IPO cannot be indefinitely sustained and population growth will limit its market. It’s bound to hit a brick wall eventually, and that time is likely to come sooner rather than later. Moreover, Facebook is no longer sexy. It has become ubiquitous and tired.

This is not to suggest that Facebook has no value. Obviously it knows a huge amount about its users based on what they choose to disclose and by analyzing what they do within Facebook, but this value diminishes quickly once it loses users. Its true value may be not in what it knows or can predict about your buying preferences, but by mining data among its users to determine trends. In particular, it should focus on thought leaders: those who set trends and convince others to follow them. Knowing what they and their friends care about is very valuable.

I suspect if Facebook is to grow that this is where it should be concentrating its resources. Operating as if users will not drift elsewhere as interest and whim takes them is delusional. Operating as if social relationships were all that mattered is also delusional. The history of the web suggests that users will move to another web site on a dime, which is why Pinterest is now a phenomenon, particularly among women. Pinterest clearly satisfied an itch for sharing information that Facebook simply had not thought through sufficiently.

To the extent that things endure on the web, it is because sites present tools that add value about the web as a whole. Particularly valuable is “meta” information: information about information. Google’s value is probably not inflated. This is because it can organize and present the Internet’s information in a coherent way that we need. Facebook does make it easier to keep and maintain social connections, but this is an ancillary feature of the web, not its heart. Information is its center.

As part of a balanced portfolio, perhaps owning some Facebook stock makes sense. As a strategy for acquiring great wealth, being heavily vested in it is likely to subtract from your wealth instead of add to it.