Inside Yahoo's social network

Company is seeking to add a social dimension to its platform by intuiting a social graph and profile page for each user and opening up some APIs.

Dan Farber
4 min read

In January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Yahoo CEO and co-founder Jerry Yang offered a sneak peek at Yahoo's next-generation, socially networked user experience. In a Flash-based demo, Yang showed how Yahoo was opening up its platform to third-party developers and building hooks to socialize the experience for the more than 500 million users of its various services.

Third-party applications can be accessed via the Yahoo Mail interface, as well as services recommended by friends. My Conversations is a way for Yahoo Mail to digest conversation threads and initiate actions, such as planning a dinner with a group of contacts. You can drag an e-mail thread into a map and profiles of those on the e-mail are surfaced, noting preferences (food in this instance), and suggesting and locating restaurants in the area. Yahoo

In this screen from the January 2008 CES demo, Yahoo Mail shows messages from a user's most important connections as well as their status updates. Yahoo

But that demo of socially enriched Yahoo services is still incubating, and the company has not been successful in becoming a social-networking hub. Yahoo 360, introduced in 2005 , never took off. A more hip version, Mash, was recently shuttered after less than a year. In the meantime, Facebook, which Yahoo tried to acquire for a rumored $1 billion in 2006, has accumulated more than 100 million users in four years.

But Yahoo executives claim they are not focused on challenging Facebook or MySpace. They are seeking to add a social dimension to the Yahoo platform by intuiting a social graph and profile page for each user and opening up APIs that allow developers to access the profile data.

Ash Patel, executive vice president of Yahoo's Audience Product Division Dan Farber/CNET News

"We are really not interested in creating a social destination site," said Ash Patel, executive vice president of Yahoo's Audience Product Division. "That ship has sailed, between MySpace and Facebook and Hi5 and Bebo and other reasons. Even with that, there are 1.2 billion people on the Internet, and only 150 million are using social networks. That's a lot of greenfield."

"Look at the hundreds of millions of people using Yahoo," Patel continued. "Many of them don't care to go to a social-networking site to build their profile. For them, we want to add the right amount of social to give them social relevance but not to duplicate Facebook or MySpace. They don't want all features."

"Yahoo has done well with taking a lot of user experiences that have taken off and doing them well so they appeal to the masses. For example, we did that with RSS. People don't know what it is but we put it into MyYahoo and got wide adoption. We can put the right bits of social that matter and put them into products in the right way," Patel added.

At the recent Yahoo Open Hack Day about 300 developers got access to new "social" APIs, which open up user address book contacts, profile data, notifications, and the "vitality stream" (like Facebook's news feed) to external applications, which can be added to services such as Yahoo Mail and the Yahoo front page.

"We are taking existing products and services, making them richer, and enabling social elements for the audience, and potentially leading the way for new applications," Chief Yahoo and co-founder David Filo explained during an interview last week.

Yahoo is focused on Mail--which has 275 million monthly users, according to Patel--as the core application to wire up with the social APIs. "People have their top 10 to 20 friends they care about. We have to take the latent social stuff, such as the address book with tens of billions of connections, and instant messaging, and buddy lists, and find the top 10 to 20 people who matter to a person," Patel said. Yahoo is developing a new profile page; Yahoo 360 profiles will be migrated to the new profile pages, and those users will have the option of moving their Yahoo 360 blogs to other blog platforms, such as WordPress and TypePad.

During a meeting with the press last week, Patel showed how Netflix, Flickr, and Evite could be integrated into Yahoo Mail. For example, an e-mail from a Netflix user about returning a movie could be turned into an interactive experience. Using the Yahoo Mail developer platform, Netflix can be added as an application in Yahoo Mail. A new tab appears and the application shows a list of movies that friends from within the Yahoo address book, who are also Netflix customers, have watched. Yahoo Instant Messaging is also integrated with the Mail and Netflix experience.

Applications such as Netflix could be integrated into Yahoo Mail. Yahoo

Patel also showed Netflix integrated into the Yahoo front page and integrated into Yahoo search. "In Yahoo Search, you can see the general Web critics view of the movie and the Netflix ratings, and you can add it to your Netflix queue. Instead of a bunch of searches, you can actually get something done there," he said.

Patel didn't give a precise timetable for introducing the new profile page or the social graph of the top 10 to 20 contacts based on address book and buddy list contacts and their "vitality" stream.

"The profile page is a cornerstone. It's a necessity but not a destination as on Facebook or MySpace. Yahoo 360 was a way to create a new profile with social networking. We didn't get it right. We need the basic profile for users just to manage their identity so when they participate in other parts of Yahoo they have options to see," Patel said. "We will go out in steps, with the first rollout of profiles in beta later this year."

Yahoo executives wouldn't say when the user experience demoed at CES would be available, but made it clear that scaling the new functionality for more than 500 million users was a major technical and user interface challenge. Venkat Panchapakesan, head of Yahoo's Audience Technology Group, noted the three top challenges for getting Yahoo's social to scale: the complexity of mobile and making applications work fast for Yahoo Mail; data privacy, such as dealing with notions of user control at the same time data is broadcast; and converting all profiles to a single name space and lighting up the social graph.

Yahoo is heading in the right direction with its newly found openness and social rewiring, although it should have started this undertaking a few years ago. Now it's a matter of executing on the plan, which hasn't been made easier by the exodus of talent from the company in recent months, and getting developers and hundreds of millions of users to buy into the plan.