Bartz holds court on Yahoo's 15th birthday

As the elder statesman of the Internet, Yahoo has seen a lot over the past 15 years. Amid talk that rivals have passed it by, CEO Carol Bartz is adamant that Yahoo's day will come again.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
4 min read

SUNNYVALE, Calif.--Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz thinks she can duplicate the modern-day Silicon Valley turnaround story--Steve Jobs' return to Apple--if only people would give her a little time.

"I know people want to see magic things happen," Bartz said during lunch with a group of reporters at Yahoo's headquarters. But she pointed out that it took Jobs a couple of years after returning to Apple in 1997 to really turn things around with products like the iPod and iTunes, and he was "returning to a company he knew really well."

Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz Tom Krazit/CNET

Bartz has certainly gotten to know Yahoo quite well in the 14 months she has occupied the CEO's office. But Yahoo is an old company by the standards of this place, celebrating its 15th birthday Tuesday with purple cupcakes and foosball tables for founders Jerry Yang and David Filo to be awarded later in the day. It has been eclipsed in recent years by the likes of Google and Facebook on the Internet, and in many quarters is no longer seen as the innovator it once was.

Such matters appear to bother Bartz less than they bother others, but she acknowledged that there's still room for improvement at Yahoo. In a 90-minute roundtable discussion Tuesday, she held forth on a wide range of issues, from Google and China to search and advertising.

First off, Bartz wished to clarify remarks she made on CNBC's Power Lunch earlier on Tuesday suggesting that she'd be willing to sell the company if the right price came along. "The company is not for sale," she said, although had she been occupying Yang's chair in 2008 when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer came knocking, she likely would have taken his offer.

Yahoo is looking to grow this year through acquisitions and aggressive hiring, she said. Expect Yahoo to pursue smaller companies--100 employees or less--as that's an efficient way of getting a good technology and a good team in-house, she said.

Of course, there's another Internet company in Silicon Valley buying up seemingly every start-up it can find: Google. Yahoo rarely finds itself in bidding wars with Google, Bartz said, adding that Yahoo did not pursue Flickr partner Picnik, which was acquired Monday by Google.

Google came up several times during the discussion. Bartz said Yahoo has not complained to the U.S. Department of Justice about Google's behavior, the way Microsoft acknowledged on Friday that it had. Yahoo is a member of the Open Book Alliance, which opposes Google's Book Search settlement with authors and publishers, but that's different from lodging a general antitrust complaint against the company, she said.

"I'm not usually interested in government intervention about anything," she said. "I don't wish antitrust on anyone."

She danced carefully around the issue of Google, China, and cyberattacks, refusing to confirm reports that Yahoo was hacked as part of a widespread attack against U.S. companies.

"We have always been hacked, and we have always had a policy to not disclose," Bartz said. "Shit happens all the time," she followed, explaining that Yahoo is under near-constant attacks from cybercriminals of one type or another.

Count Bartz among those cynical of Google's intentions in China following its January statement that it was no longer willing to offer a censored search engine in China and would consider pulling out of the country. Nothing has happened since, as Google told a Senate committee hearing Tuesday that it is still evaluating its options in China.

"I actually thought that if they were that heartfelt, they should do it. Looks to me like it was more of a statement than an action," she said.

She did sympathize with Google's plight in Italy, expressing concern about the European Union and the behavior of individual countries toward business and the Internet. It could have just as easily been a Yahoo property that was the target of Italian prosecutors, she said.

When it comes to her own company, Bartz said she's getting increased interest from major advertisers whose purse strings are starting to loosen a tad, at least compared to last year. Yahoo wants to give its users more freedom to customize their Yahoo experience, which has the nice side benefit of providing greater targeting for advertisers.

In addition, Yahoo plans to roll out more of its own content to attract users alongside new advertising formats, as it has been signaling for some time. "We're a company that wants to deliver great content, and I want our ads to be as interesting as our content," Bartz said.

But when you consider the scale at which Yahoo operates in the U.S., Bartz said, money can be spent more efficiently courting existing users and instead trying to find new users outside the U.S. Yahoo's $100 million marketing campaign has been a dud in the U.S. but has produced better results overseas, she said, citing India and the U.K. as examples.

By the time Yahoo's next birthday rolls around, Bartz wants the company to have made more progress on sharing user data across content sites and personalizing experiences for its users, whether that's through social networking, niche content, or some combination.

"That's aspirational," she said, noting that to really pull that off Yahoo would have to host a front door for each Web user on its network: something like 600 million people. Still, it seems that Bartz would prefer Yahoo chug along producing its own unique mix of content and technology, attracting big-name advertisers without getting into the industry squabbles so prevalent today.

"Everybody's pissed at everybody right now," she said, referring to disputes among Apple, Google, Microsoft, phone makers, the telecom industry, and governments. While she may be concerned about the EU, there's one country she wouldn't mind emulating: "We're Switzerland."