When I went to work for Yahoo after they bought our startup in 1998, it felt like the center of the world. It was supposed to be the next big thing. It was supposed to be what Google turned out to be.
What went wrong? The problems that hosed Yahoo go back a long time, practically to the beginning of the company. They were already very visible when I got there in 1998. Yahoo had two problems Google didn’t: easy money, and ambivalence about being a technology company.
A parte estúpida da história:
The first time I met Jerry Yang, we thought we were meeting for different reasons. He thought we were meeting so he could check us out in person before buying us. I thought we were meeting so we could show him our new technology, Revenue Loop. It was a way of sorting shopping search results. Merchants bid a percentage of sales for traffic, but the results were sorted not by the bid but by the bid times the average amount a user would buy. It was like the algorithm Google uses now to sort ads, but this was in the spring of 1998, before Google was founded.
Revenue Loop was the optimal sort for shopping search, in the sense that it sorted in order of how much money Yahoo would make from each link. But it wasn’t just optimal in that sense. Ranking search results by user behavior also makes search better. Users train the search: you can start out finding matches based on mere textual similarity, and as users buy more stuff the search results get better and better.
Jerry didn’t seem to care. I was confused. I was showing him technology that extracted the maximum value from search traffic, and he didn’t care? I couldn’t tell whether I was explaining it badly, or he was just very poker faced.
I didn’t realize the answer till later, after I went to work at Yahoo. It was neither of my guesses. The reason Yahoo didn’t care about a technique that extracted the full value of traffic was that advertisers were already overpaying for it. If they merely extracted the actual value, they’d have made less.
Hard as it is to believe now, the big money then was in banner ads. Advertisers were willing to pay ridiculous amounts for banner ads. So Yahoo’s sales force had evolved to exploit this source of revenue. Led by a large and terrifyingly formidable man called Anil Singh, Yahoo’s sales guys would fly out to Procter & Gamble and come back with million dollar orders for banner ad impressions.
The prices seemed cheap compared to print, which was what advertisers, for lack of any other reference, compared them to. But they were expensive compared to what they were worth. So these big, dumb companies were a dangerous source of revenue to depend on. But there was another source even more dangerous: other Internet startups.
Eis um círuclo vicioso escroto:
By 1998, Yahoo was the beneficiary of a de facto Ponzi scheme. Investors were excited about the Internet. One reason they were excited was Yahoo’s revenue growth. So they invested in new Internet startups. The startups then used the money to buy ads on Yahoo to get traffic. Which caused yet more revenue growth for Yahoo, and further convinced investors the Internet was worth investing in. When I realized this one day, sitting in my cubicle, I jumped up like Archimedes in his bathtub, except instead of “Eureka!” I was shouting “Sell!”
If circumstances had been different, the people running Yahoo might have realized sooner how important search was. But they had the most opaque obstacle in the world between them and the truth: money. As long as customers were writing big checks for banner ads, it was hard to take search seriously. Google didn’t have that to distract them.
Agora é que vem a parte mais burra história. É inacreditável que os caras lá dentro tivessem esse tipo de postura:
One of the weirdest things about Yahoo when I went to work there was the way they insisted on calling themselves a “media company.” If you walked around their offices, it seemed like a software company. The cubicles were full of programmers writing code, product managers thinking about feature lists and ship dates, support people (yes, there were actually support people) telling users to restart their browsers, and so on, just like a software company. So why did they call themselves a media company?
É isso que dar ser tapado em economia! O que seria do Google sem Hal Varian?
One reason was the way they made money: by selling ads. In 1995 it was hard to imagine a technology company making money that way. Technology companies made money by selling their software to users. Media companies sold ads. So they must be a media company.
Uma boa resposta para essa estupidez tem a ver com Bill Gates:
Another big factor was the fear of Microsoft. If anyone at Yahoo considered the idea that they should be a technology company, the next thought would have been that Microsoft would crush them.
It’s hard for anyone much younger than me to understand the fear Microsoft still inspired in 1995. Imagine a company with several times the power Google has now, but way meaner. It was perfectly reasonable to be afraid of them. Yahoo watched them crush the first hot Internet company, Netscape. It was reasonable to worry that if they tried to be the next Netscape, they’d suffer the same fate. How were they to know that Netscape would turn out to be Microsoft’s last victim.
The worst consequence of trying to be a media company was that they didn’t take programming seriously enough. Microsoft (back in the day), Google, and Facebook have all had hacker-centric cultures. But Yahoo treated programming as a commodity. At Yahoo, user-facing software was controlled by product managers and designers. The job of programmers was just to take the work of the product managers and designers the final step, by translating it into code.
Para fechar, uma boa explicação para o sucesso do facebook:
Probably the most impressive commitment I’ve heard to having a hacker-centric culture came from Mark Zuckerberg, when he spoke at Startup School in 2007. He said that in the early days Facebook made a point of hiring programmers even for jobs that would not ordinarily consist of programming, like HR and marketing.