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Yahoo! Aims to Get Personal

By Rob Hof Just days after Yahoo! (YHOO) launched the biggest makeover of its Web site in two years, one of its founders has said that's only the beginning. On Oct. 7, co-founder and Chief Yahoo Jerry Yang told attendees at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco that the portal will give Web visitors more control of the information and services they get through it. In essence, Yahoo will become not simply a place for people to go largely for information but a conduit for services to handle their increasingly digital lives.

While Yang didn't give many specifics, he hinted that Silicon Valley-based Yahoo will become much more personalized to users' individual tastes. That would build on the Sept. 30 revamping of its site, including the addition of more ways to customize MyYahoo, which has 20 million users. "Everybody uses Yahoo a little differently," said Yang. "We have to allow more control to the users."

CUT THE CLUTTER. Yahoo, which will report third-quarter earnings on Oct. 12, will have to keep reinventing itself, because it faces some new, fast-moving rivals. And it's not just newly public Google (GOOG), which has been branching out into offering new services such as e-mail. For instance, Snap, a new search engine from Idealab in Pasadena, Calif., was introduced at the conference as well. It offers the ability to narrow searches in a more customized way than existing search engines.

To stay ahead, Yang said, Yahoo especially must master new ways to let people change the way their particular Yahoo page looks. That's why the site spends a lot of time trying to figure out the different kinds of user interfaces that various users might want.

He acknowledged complaints that the site is more cluttered than it used to be. "There's a lot of disappointment that we haven't solved the user-interface problems," he said. "Yahoo is really trying to understand how we can unclutter" the site.

"INTERTAINMENT." Beyond this challenge, Yang sees Yahoo continuing to offer additional services, not just access to information and e-mail. Last month, for instance, Yahoo announced the purchase of Musicmatch, a digital-music download service, for $160 million.

Yang said that's part of a long-term move toward offering more interactive entertainment services -- or, as he puts it, "intertainment." "This is mainstream media for a lot of people," he said. "For the next generation, this is their media."

That's something, Yang added, that Yahoo Chief Executive Terry Semel understands -- and relishes. In response to the question of whether Semel might be in the running to succeed Michael Eisner as CEO of Walt Disney (DIS), Yang downplayed the rumors. "As far as I know, Terry is very happy," he said. "There's a sense of excitement about our medium. I just don't think that exists at other places. He's very much having a great time at Yahoo."

DOT-COM BOOM, V.2. As Yahoo approaches 2005 and its first decade, Yang also had some advice for budding entrepreneurs, including Google's founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. "I hope they're enjoying every minute," he said, cautioning that it's all too easy to lose sight of the right path. "In the downturn, when we were focusing on survival, we took our eyes off the emerging trends that were starting to take off," he said. "That's something we learned never to do again."

He thinks that the perennial process of renewal is happening anew: "The Valley and the tech community are ready for the next wave of companies and opportunities -- including Yahoo." Yang said it's constantly looking for new services from startups that might add to Yahoo's appeal. And if you use them, it's your Yahoo. Hof is BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau chief

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