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Will Yahoo Mail & iGoogle Become Social Networks?

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Yahoo has long realized that their strength laid in their already-strong web properties: their portal and their email service.

Two months ago, we reported that Yahoo Mail, still one of the top free Web-based email programs, could be leveraged as a social networking platform of some sort. Susan Decker, President of Yahoo, said in July that the service was “one of the Web’s largest dormant social networks and one that we are aggressively pursuing ways to activate.”

This week, the New York Times reports that they’ll be doing just that—and not only them, but Google, too. Google’s plans are pretty sketchy (or secret) at this point:

I don’t have a lot of detail from Google, but I’ve heard from several executives that this is their plan. When I talked recently with Joe Kraus, who runs Google’s OpenSocial project, he said: “We believe there are opportunities with iGoogle to make it more social.” And when I pressed him about the relationship between the social aspects of iGoogle and Gmail versus Orkut or some other social network, he said, “It is much easier to extend an existing habit than to create a brand.”

Yahoo’s plans, while not “detailed” per se, are pretty extensive. The Times spoke with Brad Garlinghouse, author of last year’s Peanut Butter Manifesto and Senior Vice President of Communications, Communities, and Front Doors. As a reminder, just two months ago, Garlinghouse predicted:

a future where Yahoo Mail could include a widget from Web invitation site Evite, a subsidiary of Yahoo competitor IAC/InterActive, that could let users share events with their Yahoo contact list. Garlinghouse also sees potential for Yahoo users to include links to profiles on social networks such as News Corp.’s MySpace within new Yahoo profiles. “We are going to experiment, we are going to take more risks,” Garlinghouse says.

As they progress toward some sort of social network, Garlinghouse

didn’t-have dates or specific product details. . . . But he did say that Yahoo was working on what he called “Inbox 2.0.”

This has several features. First, the e-mail service is made more personal because it displays messages more prominently from people who are more important to you. Yahoo is testing a method that can automatically determine the strength of your relationship to someone by how often you exchange e-mail and instant messages with him or her.

Yahoo Mail will also be extended to display other information about your friends as well. This can be a link to a profile page, and also what Yahoo calls “vitality” –- updated information much like the news feed on Facebook. There could also be simple features that are common on social networks, like displaying a list of friends whose birthdays are coming up.

By utilizing the information that “already exists on our network, but it’s dormant,” as Mr. Garlinghouse put it, Yahoo could create a natural and successful social network. Of course, for it to be a true “social network,” you’d need some sort of centralized profile page system:

There will be some sort of profile system attached to Inbox 2.0, he said. For people who use a lot of Yahoo services, this profile could be quite rich even at the beginning, as it can draw on activity on Yahoo Music, Yahoo Shopping and so on.

“If I get an e-mail from Saul Hansell, I should be able to click on his name and see his profile,” Mr. Garlinghouse said. “The profile page is where you can expose what you want people to know about you.

Garlinghouse denies that Yahoo Mash will be used for these purposes, telling the Times that “Mash is simply an experiment, not a product being readied for mass promotion.”

Of course, one key to this being a success would be the ability to opt out. Privacy is the #1 concern in social networking these days. It would probably be unwise to automatically collect and publish all the information about a person’s interaction with all of Yahoo’s services—while the controversy would garner them attention, it’s probably not a good strategy to get happy users.

Would you welcome a social network into your inbox?

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Will Yahoo Mail & iGoogle Become Social Networks?
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About Jordan McCollum
Jordan McCollum is a staff writer for the popular marketing blog Marketing Pilgrim. She has worked in search engine optimization with clients including 3M, Little Giant Ladders and ADP. After graduating from Brigham Young University, Jordan joined the SEO copywriting team at the Internet marketing firm 10x Marketing. After 10x closed its doors in December 2006, Jordan became a freelance writer and Internet marketing consultant specializing in SEO. She also has extensive experience with web analytics, conversion rate enhancement and e-mail marketing. WebProNews Writer
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