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Yahoo's New Approach to Content: Ask People What They Want to Read

Company Famously Generates 13 Million Homepages. Soon They'll Add a New Wrinkle

By Published on . 2

Yesterday, Yahoo released out of beta a website (seen below) that visualizes the traffic to Yahoo properties, letting users customize results based on various demographic categories.

Yahoo beta website

But this is just a precursor to big improvements Yahoo hopes to roll out in the next few months that will personalize the content experience on its sites, said Mike Kerns, Yahoo's VP-social and personalization, in an interview yesterday.

The hope, of course, is that a more-personalized experience will increase engagement and, with it, affinity for the Yahoo brand.

Yahoo began the process toward a more-personal reading and viewing experience a few months back, when it began integrating some of its sites with the Facebook Open Graph so that visitors could share and discover with friends. Mr. Kerns said the results have blown away Yahoo's most-aggressive projections, with more than 25 million people having opted into the service to date.

Yahoo execs like to boast the company already serves more than 13 million different variations of its homepage a day based on assumptions derived from past activity, but Mr. Kerns said it still fails to adequately ask its visitors what kind of content they actually want to see.

"Yahoo today does a very poor job listening to its users in a way they can give us credit for," he said. "If we just give them some simple ways -- a la Pandora, Zite or Amazon -- to give us feedback, we can start showing them very obviously that they're seeing content based on what we know we think about you or what we think we know about you."

Using a Super Bowl-related article, Mr. Kerns gave a hypothetical example of how Yahoo plans to solicit user feedback. "We'll tell you this page is about the NFL, the Super Bowl, Eli Manning and Gisele," Mr. Kerns said. "So my wife clicks on 'I want more of Gisele,' and the next time we see her we'll weight that explicit declaration along with everything else we're personalizing based on behavior, and other people like her."

Mr. Kerns said his team is hard at work building a system that will give users a way to explicitly declare what they're interested in reading, and have that weighted in the discovery algorithm. He said the system will not only power Yahoo sites, but will also help move its mobile newsstand, Livestand, toward a more-personalized experience. Eventually, a more-personalized consumer experience will lead to a better environment for advertisers, he said, without providing any details.

"At Yahoo today," Mr. Kerns added, "we're very good at the voice and serendipity component, as well as targeting content to users based on their usage. The crazy thing is that we have 700 million people coming to our sites and we're not even doing a good job of listening to them."

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