Goodbye Clutter, Hello Clever

Compared with Google's (GOOG) sparse, minimalist look, Yahoo!'s (YHOO) style is more tchochkes and patterned wallpaper. So it's hard not to view the redesign of Yahoo's home page -- a noticeably sleeker version unveiled in preview form on May 16 -- as the search engine's attempt to Google-ize its identity. And given that Google's stripped-down offering counted 27% more unique users in April than in the same period last year, while Yahoo's uniques only rose by 11%, imitation would seem a sound strategy.

But the changes are more than cosmetic. The new design includes increased -- and automatic-- user customization, easier navigation that doesn't rely solely on links, and a social networking element that offers continuously updated opinion polls of Yahoo's 400-million-plus registered users.


  Despite Google's increasing traffic, Yahoo still boasted the most unique U.S. page views in April, 2005 --105.4 million, according to Nielsen/NetRatings Inc. With 92.1 million unique U.S. page views in April, 2005, Google came in third after MSN (MSFT). While the numbers suggest that Google is gaining, Yahoo is still ahead of the pack and the redesign is an effort to stay there.

"Yahoo is investing in differentiating services rather than competing head on with Google," observes John Zapolski, a former creative director at Yahoo and currently a partner at San Francisco's Management Innovation Group. "The classic difference between Yahoo and Google…is that Yahoo is more about people. Google is more on algorithms and powerful engineering," Zapolski adds.

The design of the sites reflects each company's focus. The Google home page features only its search box, giving search the top -- or only -- priority and relegating the company's increasing multitude of services and features to an inside page. In contrast, Yahoo's relatively busy design, even in its stripped-down version, showcases a spectrum of offerings that reflect the myriad facets of its users' lives.


  One key design element that Yahoo is banking on is increased user customization, much of which is automated. The left-hand column of the new home page, for example, lists each of Yahoo's content categories, from Autos to Yellow Pages. Yahoo will monitor users' clicking habits and if, say, a visitor clicks through to the sports page, the word "Sports" will grow bolder and larger over time, making it easier to find.

Another feature of the redesign is scroll-over icons that instantly preview information without requiring the user to click on a link. For instance, by scrolling over the e-mail icon, users can see if they have new messages -- no need to actually pull up Yahoo Mail.

"What we did was take the paradigm of a portal" -- in other words, a single page that aggregates many services and features -- "and flipped it on its head. We didn't want users to have to click on a link and leave the home page," says Tapan Bhat, Yahoo's "front door" vice-president and manager of the redesign process. "That's fine when researching, but not when part of everyday routine -- you want that information fast."


  To achieve a simpler and, ideally, more intuitive design, Yahoo began by conducting one-on-one user interviews and then tested prototypes with people in Asia, Europe, and the United States (after all, what's "intuitive" in Sunnyvale may not be in Hong Kong).

A notable feature of the redesign resides in the bottom-right corner. Dubbed Pulse, it tracks information aggregated from searches within Yahoo's search engine and what users are purchasing through Yahoo's shopping site. These include the most popular ringtones, best movies of all time, or top hotels in Florence, as based on the opinion of Yahoo network users. Such aggregated info, Bhat says, can be seen as a snapshot of popular culture at a given time -- or, to skeptics, as simply a gimmick.

Yahoo's makeover comes shortly after the New York Times's (NYT) Web site and (TWX) debuted new designs -- suggesting that more established media companies are feeling threatened by younger Web 2.0 ventures such as MySpace.


  Redesigns are happening predominantly in media-oriented organizations. Media companies are scared. They're scrambling to accommodate new modes of using the Internet, like blogging or social networking," observes Peter Merholz, co-founder of Adaptive Path, a San Francisco-based digital-product strategy firm. The Times site, for instance, introduced a "most blogged" story feature, reflecting a better understanding of online readers. "Designs must be predicated on sound understanding of how the Web works today. A redesign can't be like simply slapping lipstick on as a quick aesthetic fix," Merholz says.

Will Yahoo's new site garner accolades when it finishes its beta phase and fully launches in summer 2006? Some observers are already impressed.

"When I first saw the redesign, I thought, 'Wow!'" says Thomas Mueller, creative director at Arnold One. "The Yahoo logo suddenly has prominence."

Like...Google's. But Yahoo's streamlined redesign has less to do with mimicking its competitor and more to do with differentiating its offerings -- and attracting the new users that will keep it at Number One.

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