Yahoo Product Exec: Redesigned Home Page Is Only the Beginning

Company Is Building Out a Mobile Product Team in NYC

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Like any product relaunch at a big internet-media business, yesterday's Yahoo home-page redesign received a bunch of coverage in media circles. The refreshed home page features bigger photos, a newsfeed with increased personalization -- both through automatic and manual means -- and more prominent weather and financial apps along the right rail. Yahoo's mobile websites also were modernized.

On Paidcontent, Mathew Ingram wrote, "Mayer's much-hyped relaunch of the home page seems a lot like adding a new coat of paint and some racing stripes to your old Chevy."

Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily complimented Ms. Mayer on pulling off the redesign, but said, "It's still not going to save Yahoo...because it's still not exciting."

Both summed up the collective view: that Yahoo is merely playing another futile game of catch-up again, as it did chasing Google in search. But here's the difference: Yahoo doesn't believe a home-page redesign will save the company. You can fault them for making a "Today" show-size deal out of it, but the redesign was going to happen anyway. It was, as execs in the pre-Mayer Yahoo called it: low-hanging fruit. Low-hanging fruit that had to be picked at some point.

A modernized home page is just a vital first step, and definitely not the only major one in the works. The company, for example, is in the process of building out a new mobile-product team in New York City. That team likely had a hand in this release, but they are also still hiring and said to be working on yet-to-be-revealed products that most people outside of Yahoo have no knowledge of today. Ms. Mayer has said it from the beginning: this is a multi-year process and she has the board backing to operate accordingly.

The point the detractors are missing is that this is merely a necessary starting point. As Yahoo product VP Mike Kerns -- who oversaw the redesign -- told me in an interview yesterday, "this is a new foundation" and "a meaningful step forward."

Still, as almost any media property can tell you, the days of the home page being the only front door -- or even a main one -- are fading.

We all know why. In many cases, more and more people are arriving through the side doors thanks to search and the ease with which article links now spread on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms.

That doesn't mean the front door doesn't matter. It's actually the most-important thing to Yahoo's heaviest users, the ones who already have Yahoo as their daily habit.

"We wanted to start with our biggest front door," Mr. Kerns he said, "but I totally acknowledge and agree with the trends and Yahoo, more so than anyone on the web, stands to benefit from improving our other front doors."

Yahoo has been prepping its backend for content personalization since 2008(!), according to Mr. Kerns. A year ago, before Ms. Mayer was hired, he was already talking about the need to give readers a way to choose what types of stories were surfaced for them.

So what was Ms. Mayer's role in the process? First, "she challenged the team to expand the breadth of content that we were recommending," he said. She didn't want more links, but more diversity of stories both from Yahoo properties and from external media properties that have partnerships with Yahoo.

"There were a lot of publishers never in the consideration set for whatever reason to be part of home-page experience and now they are eligible to be included in the newsfeed," he said.

Ms. Mayer also gave feedback on prototypes already in the works for allowing readers to virtually raise their hands and give feedback on which stories and topics they wanted to see more or less of. And, she apparently gave the team more resources to work with. "We've been getting a lot more investment and focus since she joined," Mr. Kerns said.

In a best-case scenario, the home-page and mobile upgrades get current Yahoo users to stay around longer on their visits or come back more frequently. But no one -- including Yahoo -- is likely expecting these changes to bring new users in. That's the problem going forward. And not just on the consumer side. Advertisers want -- and need -- new reasons to be excited about Yahoo.

In the meantime, Yahoo is going to milk the home page as long as it can. And by doing that successfully, which required an update such as yesterday's, it can have the runway and funds to make big bets elsewhere.

What will those big bets be? No one knows, except maybe a few people inside of the company. Ms. Mayer has talked a lot about improving the "experience" around "daily habits" and on her first earnings call even talked about the need for simple "improved execution." If that's all she's really betting on, perhaps it is really already time to worry.

But talk to people inside Mayer's Yahoo, and you'll hear the same refrain: she hates to talk about things before she does them.

Yahoo wasn't in an awful place prior to Ms. Mayer's arrival -- it was in a stagnant one. The ball is at least moving forward now. No, the home page and mobile redesigns won't "save" Yahoo. But they'll likely give it some necessary breathing room while it bets big elsewhere.

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