And The Band Played On: Yahoo Exec Dodges Difficult Questions

Questions regarding the future of Yahoo have swirled around the company since it fired its CEO and began negotations with potential buyers—but you wouldn't know it to judge by the behavior of Ross Levinsohn, the company's executive VP. At the Web 2.0 conference, Levinsohn sat down with the president of Federated Media, John Battelle. When asked questions about Yahoo, Levinsohn variously described everything at Yahoo as "fine," or noted that "If you've done jobs like this over the years, you sort of get used to it," when asked about the executive shake up.

Levinsohn's description of Yahoo's core strengths  will be familiar to anyone who has ever followed the company; the VP claims that Yahoo serves up 13 million different versions of its front page every day. "It all resonates differently for people," he said. "We're the premiere media company that personalizes [content] on all one has taken the power of  technology and combined it with emotional aspects of content...I'm incredibly bullish on this and I remain so."

Quick: What's the most important thing going on here? (good luck)

What Levinsohn doesn't seem to realize is that serving 13 million different versions of a homepage isn't necessarily a good thing. It implies, rather, that the default design is rotten enough that everyone tries to change it without a general consensus on which views work the best. Furthermore, he doesn't break down how many of the custom variations were actually designed by users, as opposed to accidentally being created by someone without a clue as to what they were doing.

The VP's comments actually shed light on what's wrong with Yahoo (though to be fair, it's anything but a new problem.)  Yahoo is huge, worth billions of dollars, and serves as a web portal and search engine for millions of people. It's a content portal and an information center. Yahoo gathers a lot of capability into one place, but it fails when it comes to actually leveraging those various capabilities into a coherent business strategy. In its rush to provide people with everything, Yahoo forgot to create a strong brand presence anchored in providing a few things really well.

Google is an excellent counter-example to this. Sure, Google does advertising, social networking, and IM communication, but when people think Google, they think search. Yahoo, in contrast, is a mixed bag of portals, news, and a search engine licensed from Microsoft. Granted, Bing isn't in much better shape, but the difference between Bing and Yahoo is that Microsoft has an extensive suite of core products with a web presence and search engine bolted on the side, as opposed to a web business without a brand identity to give it shape and form.

It's hardly fair to expect an executive that's only been with the company a year to provide off-the-cuff answers to questions that've dogged it for the last half-decade—but his dodges imply that Yahoo hasn't found a way to bail out the ship, even as it's sinking.