What do you want from Yahoo?

CEO Terry Semel's departure gives us a chance to ponder a new Yahoo. Shouldn't it aspire to something more than a Google clone?

By Farhad Manjoo

Published June 19, 2007 3:08PM (EDT)

Terry Semel's departure as Yahoo's CEO has the feel of a medium-size earthquake on the San Andreas -- it surprises nobody, and except for the folks at the epicenter (or the odd gawker), it's hard to find anyone who really cares, anyhow.

But irrelevance lies at the core of the Terry Semel story. The quick take on his turn at Yahoo -- offered up by analysts everywhere in the wake of the company's announcement Monday afternoon that co-founder Jerry Yang would take over the top spot -- is that, as an outsider to Silicon Valley, Semel failed to recognize the power of disruptive technology, i.e., the Google search engine. A former Warner Bros. executive, he stabilized Yahoo during the tech-stock implosion, but as Google began assembling an awesome collection of engineering brains to build a cloud of services on the Web, Semel dithered. Morale slipped, execs fled, Web searchers left. If, during the past five years, you ever paused to consider the brightest companies in tech, Yahoo, the beacon of an earlier Web age, would never crack your list.

The company is now looking for a new way. Yang seems unlikely to stay on long as chief (he's no Steve Jobs, Valleywag reminds us), and perhaps some greater turn -- a merger, a sale? -- is in the offing. But Semel's departure provides an opportunity to ponder a second chance. What do we want from Yahoo? What should Yahoo become?

Here's how I think about that question. I sign in to Google every day -- for GMail, for the Google Reader, for my calendar, for my documents and my online notebook -- but there's only one application I regularly use that requires me to log in to Yahoo. It's Flickr, the photo-sharing site that Yahoo bought in 2005. Everyone knows that Yahoo needs more applications like Flickr -- smart, small, fast and sticky enough to have installed itself as a fixed presence in many people's lives. Even Semel seems to have understood the value in such apps, and more than a year ago, Yahoo tapped Caterina Fake, Flickr's co-founder, to launch a skunkworks project called Brickhouse. The team's mission is to foster innovation at Yahoo -- to figure out how to build the next Flickr at the company.

According to Wall Street gabbers, Yahoo's fortunes depend on its long-delayed search-advertising program, called Panama, catching up to Google's fantastically popular and profitable advertising engine. On the financial ledger, this may be so. But trying to match Google isn't a game Yahoo's proved particularly suited to; whether in search advertising, e-mail, maps or anything else, Yahoo's recent efforts to ape Google have looked like heavy, self-conscious affairs.

In February, Brickhouse launched its first project, an RSS-mash-up tool called Pipes. Pipes lets you choose feeds from many different Web sites -- say, videos from every presidential candidate's YouTube channel -- and slice them together to form amazing new online collages. It was the first Yahoo product in just about forever to excite techies online. And though Pipes hasn't garnered much excitement beyond the tech set, it shows enormous promise -- not just as a great product and a fantastic idea, but also as a new way at Yahoo. For once, there's a Yahoo program that isn't just a new take on something Google is doing; rather, it's born out of a desire to do something completely new.

I'm not saying that Brickhouse is Yahoo's secret weapon. It's too early to know if the project is any kind of weapon at all. But the ethos it represents -- the effort to build things inside Yahoo that wow us -- is one I hope its next CEO understands and embraces. If Yahoo wants to be relevant again, it's got to do things nobody else is doing. Building a better search advertising plan is important, but nobody goes to a Web site for search ads. We go to the Web for apps like Flickr, and if Fake's Brickhouse team can find a way to mint that magic -- to give us reasons to sign in to Yahoo -- maybe people online would start to care about news of a management shake-up at the firm.

But let me end by asking you: What do you want from Yahoo?

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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