Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Can Yahoo be Saved - A Strategy for failure

Know what your website does .. and does not do. A clear Vision or sense of purpose is a key factor that separates websites that succeed versus those that fail. A clear vision underpins all our design decisions. It helps us decide what functionality to include or exclude. Just because [insert trendy web site here - Apple, Microsoft, Google or Digg] does [insert fancy widget] is reason to be aware of a capability, but does not make it essential. Conversely, there are things your website HAS to do to win over your target market. When you don't focus, you will regularly fail to recognise what's essential. This is the situation Yahoo! seems to have been for the last several years.

It saddens me to write about Yahoo! in this context. I've been a member since March 1998, and a paying member for most of that time. It's apparently unbelievable to new web adopters that Yahoo! was once one of the great innovators. "Once upon a Time" they were leaders in tools we now take for granted - task list on same page as calendar, synchronization of data with the phone (or PDA in those days) and they developed a brilliant desktop search tool (that indexed USB drives and maybe even network drives - but my memory is unreliable here - it was a very long time ago).

The decline has been obvious for a long time, the missed opportunities, cost cutting the wrong things. So what has prompted this outburst (and planned, painful separation). The final straw seems trivial perhaps: Plaxo (Plaxo.com) has stated that they will no longer synchronize their data aggregation tool with Yahoo! because it has become too hard.

So what? Well let's look at why I used Yahoo! for so long, what did a paying customer like me join Yahoo! for. I'm a consultant operating a small to medium business looking for a low cost online place to centralize my personal and business information. It needs to be available to my phone, and any other application that uses my core contact, to do and calendar information.

Yahoo! was originally ideal. Each contact page has a unique URL so I can place that in, for example, a project management tool - click on the name, up comes the contact details, use it in a mind map of something - click on the entry and I can dial/email without having to interrupt workflow. Same with Notes - click on the URL and I can update the annotation. No PC-based package can offer that.

Now ... see what I almost, but don't quite, have - a low cost CRM. All the components are there - calendar, Notes, Tasks with due date and Contact details - all with unique hyperlinks. All can be synchronised to the Phone. Plus email with aliases (for paying customers). A centralized, accessible anywhere, collection of the information I need to run my life and my business. All wasted because while Google worked and worked to make synchronization of their data easy and pervasive throughout the web, Yahoo! have been tardy in making our data available to us. All wasted because they dropped the focus on paying customers and failed to do the next stage of development and connect the systems they already had.

Today, it is much easier to be assimilated by the Google Borg than remain in the Yahoo! camp. Google has, with focus and dedication, made it easy. But why is it so? Ease of data exchange is a priority with anyone that has the disposable income to use a smartphone. Isn't that the demographic to aim for? Which demographic contains IT journalists, bloggers, those who make recommendations to new users? Now look at your own websites - have you ignored Smartphone users or made data hard to get at?

As a sidenote, this is not a universal truth - just a general one: I've sometimes had to design websites for Indigenous or Rural and Remote communities where Smartphones are just not a priority - as always - know your audience, know your purpose.

Desktop search was another sad episode. I don't know the full story, but it looked to me as if Yahoo! bought in a package. One that I tried a couple of times and uninstalled each time. One that wasn't as function rich as the original Yahoo! product. One that doesn't touch USB drives (last I looked, I gave them a second chance before I installed Google desktop - that's it). The USB function isn't just important for me. Lots of people would overflow their local drive. However, for me it is crucial - I have 2 Terabytes of supplementary material I want indexed - training courses, white papers, coding examples and - if it's my turn to cook - recipes. Google desktop on my Mac still is nowhere near as good as the old Yahoo! desktop search, but it's reliable. Yahoo! started to lose me from the moment I had to install Google desktop search.

Increasingly, I'm even using Google Search for work. I don't want distracting news items or social 'stuff' distracting me when I have a task to complete. Surely this is something that Yahoo! could let me personalize.

Yahoo! continues to do some excellent things in small areas. Yahoo! Pipes is a great tool. However, the bright spots of excellence don't seem to be treasured and disappear in the surrounding smog of directionless missed opportunity. I'll keep my email addresses - I've had them a long time - but my contacts have moved to - you guessed it - Google as my central repository. How the mighty are fallen. All we can do is observe, learn and apply to our own websites. The web is always dynamic, and there is no place for complacency. So .. is there really a clear vision for each of your sites? If not, prepare to lose your visitors. Even a Yahoo! can fail.