Exclusive Yahoo Interview pt.1

    August 5, 2004

Chris and I just spent an hour talking with Yahoo’s Ken Norton and Grace Chan in a private meeting room in Yahoo’s little purple booth, here at the Search Engine Strategies Conference. This is news to me, but I learned at this conference that Yahoo’s official color is purple. In fact, Ken and Grace revealed a little known fact that the only reason the Yahoo! Logo is red is because they couldn’t find a shade of purple that looked right. Yahoo’s new branding strategy includes a deep purple background with the Yahoo! logo clearly contrasting in strong white letters. The company has also been sending promotions people from San Francisco to this conference wearing huge purple jumpsuits – which, I’ve heard, are uncomfortably warm.

Discuss this interview in WebProWorld

Brittany Spending Some Time In A Purple Haze...
Brittany Spending Some Time In A Purple Haze…

But enough marketing information. Back to the interview

Ken, who spoke at the Search Detours session of this Search Engine Strategies conference, has been in the industry for about 8 years. He used to work for CNET when it launched Search.com and Download.com and later became the CTO of CNET’s Snap search engine. At Yahoo, he is the Director of IT, Product Management and Search. Some of his specific duties involve search integration management, toolbar management and search category management. Ken is enjoying his time at Search Engine Strategies, and said it’s funny because “you come to conferences like this and see people you’ve known for years.”

Grace, who’s in charge of Yahoo’s Product Management, has been with the company for two years. Before that she worked with Excite@Home, which of course no longer exists. “It was stellar successful,” she laughed. At Yahoo, she spends most of her time working with services such as the Yellow Pages and Local Search.

We sat in a cozy little room with four chairs (yes, they were purple) from Yahoo’s headquarters. Ken warned me as I was sitting down: “These chairs tend to collapse. Especially when we’re having meetings and we’re getting ready to make crucial points.”

“I think they just do that to make sure everybody’s awake,” Grace jokingly added.

So, I carefully sat down, taking note of the purple carpet and the exclamations of “Yahoo!” jumping out of the purple walls, pulled out my notepad and began the interview with my first question:

“What is Yahoo’s overall strategy to take on Google in the search engine industry?”

“Search is obviously a huge priority for Yahoo,” Ken replied. “We’ve invested literally billions in the search space. We’re now in a position in which feel we have all the pieces we need to really compete in the search engine space. That wasn’t the case three years ago.”

How does Yahoo! plan on rising to the top of such a competitive industry? “We think of a few different areas where we feel we’re qualified,” Ken said. “I think if you look at Yahoo! as a network, we are the largest Internet network in the world. It’s not just a network; there’s a lot of different parts.” By “parts” he’s of course referring to sections such as Yahoo! Movies, Yahoo! Mail, Yahoo! Shopping, Yahoo! Travel and the wide variety of other services Yahoo! provides. “All of these are just terrific. We have great assets that over the past seven or eight years have built huge branding and a huge audience and, as a product guy, I think great technology for serving the needs of the consumers in these categories.” Ken hinted that Yahoo! plans on using these technologies to enhance the quality of its search.

“Going forward, clearly understanding user intent is going to be very important,” he revealed. “Search right now is very vanilla. You do a search and you’ll get the same results as if I do a search, even though we’re very different people and even though the context may be completely different. This is really an opportunity to use better understanding of user context to provide much more personalized search.”

The next question came from Chris, who attended Monday’s Search Detour session. He wondered if Yahoo! planned on using its already existing user information to personalize and localize search.

“We’ve established really great relationships with 100 million consumers – who are people like you – who can say, Here’s my zip code. Here’s my interests. Here’s what I do everyday.’ So certainly there’s opportunities to apply that to search.”

The challenge to personalization, as many people have mentioned at SES, is to apply the technology in a way that actually benefits the end user’s search experience. Yahoo! is aware of that. “If you try and you’re wrong it’s worse than having not tried at all,” Ken admitted. “When it comes to re-ranking results we want to make sure we’re doing the right think and we’ve improved the experience far beyond what it was or we won’t do it.”

This may or may not ease the concerns mentioned by some WebProWorld members.

In part two of this report, I’ll reveal what Yahoo! had to say about some of these concerns, as well as provide more information from the rest of our hour-long interview.

In the meantime if you’re looking for more information on personalization, you may enjoy my recent article.

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Brittany Thompson is an administrator for WebProWorld.com and contributes to the Insider Reports with her regular articles and interviews.