Yahoo! Is Dead. With Verizon’s Help, Long Live Yahoo!.
In the beginning there was Internet in a Box. Just $99 and you were on. But you had no clue where to go, what to look for, why you actually wanted to be there. Then along came Yahoo!.
Yes, there were many others, but Yahoo! provided simplicity, ease of use, and a guide to help the average person dip their toe in and start to understand what was on the internet. Yahoo! was your best guide to the internet. A simple defining role.
In 1995, I had the distinct honor of being a tangential part of that story.
I was leading the digital team at Ogilvy & Mather, specifically working on IBM. In conjunction with the senior executives of marketing at IBM, Marianne Caponnetto and J. Kosanke, we were creating the first digital strategy for IBM. It was a no-brainer for IBM to be an early mover in the digital advertising ecosystem. As IBM supported content through advertising online, more content would be created, consumers would go to that content and content providers would need to purchase more servers (from IBM) to handle the traffic.
Microsoft had launched Windows ’95. For you millennials reading this, believe it or not, there was a time that the launch of a new Operating System generated the same enthusiasm as the launch of a new smartphone, gaming console or VR Headset. IBM had its own operating system, OS/2, and was trying to find ways to break through the clutter strategically. We had done a small search buy on Yahoo and others where we purchased search terms such as “Windows”, “Microsoft”, “Bill Gates”, “operating system”, etc that generated quite a bit of buzz for its relevance, creativity and brashness.
See, again for you millennials, back then, banner ad units (a type of early stage ad unit developed for 1800 bps modem worlds that has long since been made irrelevant by the Broadband era….errr..well…whatever) were triggered by user search. And we were getting 6% click-through rates (oh, the good old days!). The campaign was deemed a success, and we used that pilot to embark on an ambitious plan.
Anil Singh, who was VP of Sales at Yahoo!, and Jeremy Ring, a former Florida State Senator who at the time was the Sr. Account Executive, came into my office simply expecting us to either extend the OS/2 campaign or maybe add a couple of words. We had far bigger and grander ideas in mind. For a month prior, we had been working with multiple divisions of IBM to gather a list of over 1,000 tech industry words.
Sure, the obvious were on the list: “computer” “laptop”, “server”. But we had incredibly obscure terms as well. The one I will never forget was “cryptolope”, which apparently was a privacy security term that meant encrypted envelope. The client was incredibly gung-ho about securing that term. I think in the three years of the campaign, there were 10 searches on the term. But I guarantee you that those 10 people saw IBM associated with cryptolopes. I will never forget the look on Anil and Jeremy’s face when they understood the scope of the buy we were implementing. Thus began the search advertising industry.
The roadblock program continued over the next 3 years, expanding globally, until finally the web had scaled where it was no longer viable to buy at that volume for IBM or for the search engines to sell it to us. It remains, however, one of the landmark events in digital marketing that kicked off search, a multi-billion dollar industry today, as a legitimate digital media and marketing tool.
The sale of Yahoo! to Verizon has me feeling sad today. Yahoo! was the first to give society a way to navigate and make the web manageable. In its early days it was willing to take great risks. Yahoo Financevision was a great product, but was 10 years ahead of its time. Yahoo! Groups brought tens of thousands of people with niche interests together and was also the form of communication that a handful of us utilized to gather the ad industry’s thoughts for version 1 of the Terms and Conditions for digital advertising. Yahoo Fantasy Football was and is one of the best platforms for one of the most culturally significant group bonding experiences (Pokemon Go notwithstanding…ugh).
The thing that brought Yahoo! down was the simple inability of Yahoo! to give a one or two sentence answer to the most basic question in the Broadband era, “What is Yahoo!?” It should have been easy, but CEO after CEO could not answer that basic question in a satisfactory manner. Terry Semel tried to make it a video content company, but it was probably too soon and the investment too fast.
Marissa Mayer, who is not expected to join Verizon as part of the deal, also failed to come up with the answer. Ultimately, I hope Tim Armstrong and the Verizon crew can find it. For me, the answer would have been and should have been clear, Yahoo! is the simplest way for consumers to grasp what the web is today and provides the tools that allow them to experience it in a way that uncovers delights that they never knew existed. That could have been as true today as it was back then, with the right tools, investments and direction.
Yahoo! is dead. With Tim’s help, Long live Yahoo!.
Jeff Minsky is SVP, Agency & Client Development for Unruly. A company dedicated to transforming the future of digital advertising for the better.