Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has made of point of prioritizing mobile as central to the portal’s future. That has led to string of acquisitions—the most recent being Monday’s pick-up of news-summarizing app Summly—and could result in the resurrection of Yahoo’s glory days as the Web’s de facto homepage, this time on the smaller screen.
Before considering the potential sum of Mayer’s spending spree, let’s look at its parts (each of which Yahoo has or will be discarding in their previous incarnation).
Summly: The British-based team, led by 17-year-old wunderkind Nick D’Aloisio, built a mobile app that shrinks articles into snack-sized snippets and was by all accounts beautifully designed.
Jybe: The five-person startup constructed a recommendation engine for restaurants, movies and books that is based on someone’s social data.
Alike: CEO Maria Zhang and company developed an app for people to search for places and discover new places deemed similar, or alike.
Snip.it: Founder Ramy Adeeb and his nine employees created a Instapaper-meets-Spotify platform for users to pull together collections of their favorite articles and share them with each other.
Stamped: Similar to Jybe, cofounder Robby Stein and his eight compatriots devised a platform for people to suggest places like restaurants of things like books to others.
No one knows for sure (or at least Yahoo isn’t publicly saying) what Yahoo plans to do with these acqui-hires, but it appears the portal plans to assemble the mobile homepage. Or more accurately the mobile hub that pulls content from various spokes. Unlike the desktop web’s homepage, the mobile homepage could exist on the mobile web or more likely as a mobile app and would display not so much content as information. Of course that would include articles and videos, but smartphones are as much a tool as they are a screen. So the mobile homepage would be a portal and a utility.
In keeping with Mayer’s favored talking point that Yahoo’s properties are “daily habits,” the mobile homepage could be an all-in-one Yahoo app that services each individual user with personalized, on-the-go content from restaurant recommendations to what to read while waiting for a table. It could aggregate and filter news based on a user’s interests and social signals. That would pit Yahoo in a marketplace already crowded by the likes of Flipboard, Prismatic, Zite and others, as well as the ghost of Yahoo’s failed Livestand tablet app. Despite all the contenders, none has emerged a champion. Yahoo could also roll out location-recommendation capabilities a la Foursquare, Yelp, etc. Again, it’s a crowded market, but Mayer’s last post at Google before taking the helm at Yahoo had her overseeing the search giant’s local, maps and locations services products. Then it could layer in its communications products like Messenger and the refreshed Mail, the latter being the primary pillar of the portal’s popularity and continued relevance.
Some might say the homepage is on its way out, that Facebook and Twitter have replaced Yahoo and AOL as people’s gateways to the Internet. Actually, Facebook and Twitter have introduced a new kind of homepage, replacing the panel-based layout with the stream. Yahoo acknowledged the change in reformatting its famed homepage with a news feed as its heart. And Facebook and Twitter have shown they want to be the new homepages. In redesigning its News Feeds, Facebook added the Following Feed, which pulls content from publishers’ and brands’ Pages and articles other users have shared into a Twitter-like content stream. And Twitter has spruced up its Discover tab to make it easier to crawl for curated content. As it stands, Facebook and Twitter are sitting in the pole position as the mobile home pages. They’re the go-to apps people check while waiting in line at the grocery store, or really, anywhere. But they haven’t cornered the market (though Facebook may be close).
There’s something to be said for Facebook and Twitter being too social. That is, someone might care what their friends are reading or watching or listening to, but they probably have interests that lie outside their circle of friends. Twitter can help fulfill that purpose, but that experience still depends on what other people come across and whether they want to share it with others. Social is an extremely valuable signal for content recommendation (and it’s way more filtered than a publisher’s generic editorial curation). It’s just not the only valuable signal, as evidenced by the ascendance of content curation app Prismatic, the resurrection of Digg or the outcry over Google Reader’s demise. Or as evidenced by the fact that Yahoo still pulls in 210.6 million monthly U.S. visitors, according to comScore. People like content that’s personalized to them individually, not just the larger ring of people they associate with. That’s the promise in blending social signals with more traditional content recommendation signals like the articles an individual has read. That’s why Yahoo is still in the game.
Then there’s the notion that the mobile homepage wouldn’t be limited to editorial content and would include things like location-related information and a communications platform. Now, some would argue that people prefer dedicated mobile apps. Perhaps that’s why Facebook Places never really took off while Foursquare has succeeded, or why Google has multiple apps for its products instead of consolidating them into one omnibus offering (the Google app doesn’t count since it’s more of a browser than an assemblage of apps). But really, for all the apps that people download, they don’t seem to use all that many apps that often. App analytics firms Localytics has found that 69 percent of users open an app less than 11 times over the course of nine months.
Facebook seems to get that there’s some desire for an all-in-one mobile hub. It has beefed up the Nearby feature in its mobile site and apps to help people figure out where they might want to go, and eventually the company will add Graph Search to its mobile properties, which will further add to their utility and potentially mitigate the need to turn to another, specialized app. Through Messages and the standard posting tool, Facebook’s mobile site and apps inherently feature the communications layer that has been a driver of Web portals’ adoption and use.
Facebook could very well solidify itself as the mobile homepage, as it’s become the desktop homepage. But it still has work to do in getting people to think of it as such on their more purpose-driven smartphones. Yahoo has plenty more work to do in just getting people to think of it at all, but those 210.6 million monthly U.S. users suggest it has a window, albeit a shrinking one.