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Jerry Yang: I'm a fighter

The Yahoo CEO, hit hard in recent months by a tepid economy and a failed takeover bid from Microsoft, now has to deal with the dissolution of its hyped (but controversial) search ad deal with Google.

Yang (left) and Battelle on Wednesday at the Web 2.0 Summit. Josh Lowensohn/CNET News

SAN FRANCISCO--This hasn't been the best year for a lot of people in the tech industry. But nobody can argue that Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang hasn't had a particularly rough time.

"Jerry Yang has had a tough nine months," Web 2.0 Summit host John Battelle of Federated Media said as he introduced the CEO for a talk at the conference here on Wednesday, and went on to list some of his company's much-documented woes. Yang, in a blue blazer and white checkered shirt, slouching a bit in his chair, replied, "That's quite an intro."

But it was still an understatement. Yang took the stage at the high-profile industry conference on the same day that Google announced it was walking away from a 10-year search-advertising deal with Yahoo, which would have brought the beleaguered Sunnyvale, Calif.-based dot-com hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, due to antitrust concerns. Battelle said that, due to the situation, before the talk started that he'd gotten calls from multiple reporters wondering if Yang would actually show up.

But he did, and he was defiant. "I don't regret any minute of what happened," Yang said. "Because I've been there the whole time, it's a part of me and some people say that's great and some people say 'well, you're just too close to it.'"

Even though Battelle, moderating the "conversation," brought up just about every ghost from Yahoo's recent past--from the "peanut butter memo" to the Microsoft takeover debacle to corporate raider Carl Icahn's attempt to shake things up--the talk proved less than electrifying. The CEO kept driving home a single point: that Yahoo is a growing company and that he fully expects it to weather the storm regardless of the situation.

"I certainly didn't expect the year to be what it's been, coming into it, but I think that the environment which we are in today is extraordinary," Yang said. "I think what Yahoo's been through in 2008 has been extraordinary."

Video: Jerry Yang at Web 2.0 Summit (courtesy of TechWeb)

The problem with the Microsoft deal, he said, was that it was the wrong deal for the two companies. "To this day, I have to say that the best thing for Microsoft to do is to buy Yahoo. I don't think that is a bad idea at the right price, whatever the price is, we are willing to sell the company," he explained. "We were ready to negotiate, we wanted to negotiate a deal, and we felt that we weren't that far apart. But at the end of the day, they withdrew and they since have been very clear about not wanting to buy the company."

In a joking reference to the fact that Yahoo may not get within striking distance of the share price Microsoft was willing to buy it for any time soon, Battelle exclaimed, "Why didn't you take the $33 a share, Jerry?" Indeed, some pundits think that Microsoft may show a renewed interest now that Yahoo has been (arguably) sufficiently battered to make it bargain-basement cheap. The catalyst, of course, is the disintegration of the Google deal.

"Google clearly decided that they did not want to stay in the deal, and we're disappointed with that," was Yang's take on it.

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He encouraged Battelle--and the audience--to focus on the innovation, not the bad press. Namely, he meant the company's restructuring (or "rewiring," as they seem to prefer) into a developer-friendly open platform. When Battelle asked him if Yahoo was just jumping on the "platform" bandwagon kick-started by Facebook a year and a half ago, Yang replied, "It's very different from Facebook because what people go to Facebook for is very different from why they go to Yahoo."

The other light at the end of the tunnel, as detailed by Yang, is APT, the upcoming advertising product that's such a big deal for the company that they enlisted Mad Men star Jon Hamm, who plays a fictional advertising exec on TV, to help them pitch the product.

"I think that advertising is still fairly early in its development on the Internet, and I know it's a $40 billion industry and everyone talks about it as a large mature industry," Yang said. "But our view has been that the real sort of endpoint for advertising, the real vision for advertising is being able to really take advertisers and advertising offers and being able to map them against consumer needs, consumer desires in a way that is seamless, sort of one big marketplace."

Though he remained characteristically quiet and soft-spoken, Yang made it clear that he, along with the rest of Yahoo, wants to be seen as a fighter.

"The Yahoo story that hasn't really been told, and what we've had to execute in order to do it, is we do believe we're innovating, we do believe we're changing, we do believe we're changing the game," Yang said. "My personal belief is if you're not in the game to win, you shouldn't be in the game, and that's the way that I try to encourage the whole company to think about."