With backlog cleared, Yahoo can get back on track

Improvements to Yahoo Mail, Messenger, and search introduced Monday are long overdue, but their launch gives Yahoo room to right the ship.

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
3 min read

Has Yahoo finally gotten to the point where it's exchanging peanut butter for WD-40?

Yahoo chief marketing officer Elisa Steele can focus the company on the future now that long-awaited updates to core products are finally ready. Tom Krazit/CNET

Three years ago, Yahoo executive Brad Garlinghouse wrote the famous "Peanut Butter Manifesto," designed as a wake-up call to a sluggish Yahoo that didn't really seem to know what to do with itself. With the peanut butter analogy, Garlinghouse was referring Yahoo's tendency to spread itself thin across too many projects, but he may as well also have been referring to how projects could be become mired in Yahoo's famous bureaucracy.

Fast forward to 2009, with Yahoo finally having chosen a course for its search business and turning its attention to its core properties, and all of the sudden Yahoo is making the ideas and concepts it has discussed for years come to life. It has taken quite some time but it's becoming clear that Yahoo is putting a higher priority on getting things done.

The MBAs call it "execution," a term trotted out by Chief Marketing Officer Elisa Steele during Monday's event to describe the launch of Yahoo's new home page last month. Some might snicker at the notion that Yahoo is now an execution company: Yahoo first unveiled an "open" plan to redesign the page in October 2007. And the enhancements described Monday were the central part of former CEO Jerry Yang's January 2008 speech at CES.

And indeed, several of the features demonstrated Monday are either in beta or in bucket testing. In the consumer electronics world, that's called a "paper launch," although standards are different on the Web.

But now that Yahoo is placing a long-term bet on the attractiveness of its services and content, making sure the basics are new enough to attract the digerati but simple enough for the masses is no small undertaking. Delivering on what has long been promised is the first step.

New leadership seems to have helped. The half-dozen vice presidents in attendance at Monday's meeting kept joking about how new some of them were to the company, and the overall impact was not lost that Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz has really shaken up the ranks of Yahoo's engineering and marketing culture.

Now the question for Yahoo is whether the changes it is making to the core properties that drive a huge proportion of its traffic are enough to get the ship moving in the right direction. There's a fine line that Yahoo has to walk between keeping up with advances in communication, social networking, and Web technology and the risk of alienating the millions of users who like things just the way they are, people who Yahoo is increasingly reliant upon for advertising revenue.

Either way, Yahoo has to make sure those people stay within its network, the catalyst for several of the features showcased Monday. Those searching for YouTube videos can watch them right in the search results page. Social butterflies can deliver the latest breathless update to their friends right from their inboxes or IM windows, perhaps one day posting directly to networks like Facebook and Twitter without going through a Web application.

The slick redesigns that Yahoo trotted out Monday are long overdue. While the delay may prompt some to wonder exactly what has been going on in Sunnyvale over the past two years, the fire that Bartz lit under Yahoo earlier this year is starting to produce results.

If the next revision to Yahoo's home page or Mail client arrives in 2011, however, all the changes this year will have been for naught.