David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo Inc, was in Bangalore recently to unveil a pair of new Web services. CHIP caught up with him and talked Web and content.
When a man credited with co-creating one of the most powerful online properties visits your country, it is only fair to make the time to chat. After all, David Filo is one of the reasons why Yahoo is now a household name (before that, credit to the word went to Shammi Kapoor, but that’s a different story). With their development centre operating out of Bangalore and a newly-unveiled 2.2 lakh sq. ft. facility on the outskirts of the city, they certainly have a strong Indian presence. And many of their most nifty innovations and Web services are the result of their Indian operations.
Their event on the 25th of April also saw them unveiling two new India-centric Web 2.0-based products—Yahoo! Maps and Our City. The first is an online application that delivers topographic information on cities such as roadways and route names while even overlaying business-related information such as restaurants, ATMs, commercial and entertainment establishments. This application also features satellite imagery that can superimpose information over real satellite pictures. From what I saw, it looked to be pretty accurate and informative especially for the larger Indian metros. The second product—Our City—is an online resource that offers information pertaining to the location’s history, culture, tourist attractions, city-specific entertainment and news etc. At the time of writing this, there are 19 cities included in this service.
After the event, I spent a while with David Filo in an easy-going, freewheeling conversation that gave insight into what’s driving their strategies in the year ahead.
Can you give us a world view of how the field of content is evolving?
Internally, we are investing in companies that are tied into the whole social media. This is a key area for us. A prime example of this is Yahoo Answers. This is not really about us as a company trying to figure out what are the right answers for a user, but it’s more about letting the consumer and the larger user base participate and offer solutions to each other. The reason why we have 500 million users today, there is only so much we can do to give the users a great experience. Of course, through services like Yahoo Answers, we want to tap into those 500 million people, into their minds and their passions, and get them to contribute into these products. There are other services such as Yahoo Groups and Flickr all of which are examples of creating platforms for people to come in and be part of these products and add their perspective, intelligence, and passion. This is an important area to us; one that we have been building for many years now. This is one of the strengths of our company and we want to continue to leverage this across our products.
Do you see a time when social media will be preferred over traditional modes of information delivery?
This is certainly possible—I would never say never. It does seem like at least today and for the foreseeable future, there is definitely a need for editorially varied options. So while blogs and other such forms of content are interesting, not having something like the New York Times or a similar publication, is hard to imagine. If you think about what would happen if they went away and if we had to just rely on bloggers out there, things would probably be a bit scary today. Talking about how that evolves, it does seem like there is always a place for those community experts—even users who can sift through all of this information to give a reliable voice to viewpoints. Bloggers may become this and to a large extent, they are increasingly doing this exact same thing.
Today, we’re dependant on the New York Times to really figure out what matters are important. One thing about the Internet is that it provides people with so much choice. In a lot of ways, this is very powerful, but in other ways it becomes overwhelming. They start asking questions like “Where do I go now”, “What do I listen to now”. All these questions that ask what is and isn’t important are all at your fingertips. So people still need a place to go to—a trusted source—that helps make sense of all of this. In that sense, Yahoo has being doing this since the very beginning. If you look back at where we started, the Internet was then only a few thousand websites. But even during that time, people didn’t really know where to start. In that scenario, Yahoo was originally about a service that helped people find things and explore. It wasn’t so much about answering questions related to what’s good and what’s bad, it was more about where to find information related to topics like Science, Entertainment, News, Finance etc. Our role has evolved where today when we do Yahoo News, for example, we are starting to provide our own content that answers these questions. However, a lot of it is still syndicated through other parties. But we continue to evaluate new partners to work with. We have tried to provide a balanced viewpoint where we get together people from both sides of an issue so that it does not skew one way or another. But we still provide the filter of quality resources—we know that there’s a lot of stuff out there, but we guide them about the best places to go to.
Also, as choice increases and you have more stuff to choose from, the problem only gets worse. Somebody has got to make sense of all of that for you.
With so much choice, and compressed attention spans, how do you retain customers?
In general, this isn’t really a concern to us. We are concerned with providing the best products and services out there. We’re not so much worried about users navigating away from our website because if you look at a lot of what we do, it’s actually about getting people somewhere else. Something like Yahoo Search is about getting people to where they want to go. If you look at something like My Yahoo, it’s about giving people the power to customize their experience which again could mean linking them to someplace outside of the Yahoo network. And we don’t view that as a problem—it is inherent to that service. In fact, the more you keep them on your site, the less likely will they be to come back because they’re actually trying to get somewhere. Of course, other products like our Fantasy Sports are about engaging consumers, or Yahoo Answers is created with the intent of having them spend more time on our site to find solutions to their queries.
We have a very broad set of products—some of them are time-engaging while others do not cause the consumer to come back as often but result in a critical answer to a need. For example your address book is something that you don’t return to often, unless you’re sending an e-mail from your computer or mobile device. However, this becomes a very critical piece of data when you need it.
What role does Yahoo play in the online world?
If you look at Yahoo from the very beginning, Yahoo has always been about helping people make sense of everything out there on the Internet. We’ve always tried to build an open environment where we are not aiming to get the user into our world and trap them: we’re building services that people will come back to, but which will in all likelihood lead them to going someplace else. The belief is to create something that is close to consumers and in the long term the consumers keep returning to you. That’s the reason we have 500 million users today—not because we have a system that people can’t get out of, but because of the various services that help them be more productive and to make the Internet easier to use and connect to one another. We look at it holistically saying that as a business if you want to get to a billion users up from what we have today, we have to keep building services such as these. Again, the Internet is about empowering the individual as against trapping somebody. We might have the answers to some of their questions, but the intent is to get people to what they are looking for, no matter where it is on the Internet. One of the things we’ve been investing in the last few years is called YDN—the Yahoo Developer Network. This is all about taking all of the products and services that we’ve built up over these past few years, opening them up and encouraging users to build on them.
What are the hallmarks of an engaging website?
It’s a lot of things: among them is speed, portability, reliability. Reliability is probably the most important of these. Take e-mail for example—if you can’t get through your e-mail, you have a problem. We therefore invest a lot in making our services available. When your level of usage is high, you want the service to be fast. Every product is going to have a different set of needs—with e-mail, unlimited storage is a big thing and it will obviously be useful to a lot of people. Something like Yahoo Answers is about making sure you get the correct answers. Here, even though speed is important, the number one priority is the quality of that answer and where they answer lies. There are several questions and answers and the service gives people mechanisms to sort, vote etc.