By David Lieberman, USA TODAY
October 9, 2010
ATLANTA - Yahoo (YHOO) shouldn't be such a hard company to figure out. It's one of the oldest and best-known content providers on the Web. Its news, information, entertainment and communications services attract more than 170 million U.S. visitors each month.
Yet many investors consider Yahoo to be a mystery.
Its stock has lost 15.4% of its value in 2010 as Yahoo failed to show significant gains in page views and ad sales. The big question on Wall Street is whether Yahoo is too scattered and stodgy to fend off powerful competitors led by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and AOL.
Concerns grew last week as Yahoo lost three executives who were trying to freshen its content and attract new fans - including people who use smartphones to access the Web.
No wonder all eyes in the digital world are on Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz.
She was a surprise choice to manage one of the industry's toughest turnaround challenges in January 2009. The move to Yahoo capped a long career in Silicon Valley that included 14 years running Autodesk, a computer-aided software design firm.
Bartz, 62, has spent much of her time cutting costs, and deals, as she tried to sharpen Yahoo's focus on services that appeal to advertisers. For example, last year she agreed to let Microsoft's Bing power Yahoo's search engine. And this year Yahoo bought Associated Content, which assigns news stories to freelancers based on data about subjects that interest Web users.
It's been a long journey from the farms of Minnesota and Wisconsin, where the tart-tongued executive was born and raised, to Yahoo, which is expected to generate $6.5 billion in revenue this year.
Bartz shared her views about Yahoo, prospects for the Internet and the economy with USA TODAY's David Lieberman at the 12th USA TODAY CEO Forum on Sept. 29 at Georgia State University.
The interview took place in front of an audience. Here are Bartz's thoughts, edited for length and clarity:
Did you guys miss the boat on social media?
A: Social does not just equal Facebook. Social is how people interact anywhere. During the State of the Union address last January, we had so many people commenting the first couple hours that our site went down. That's a social interaction. E-mail is a social experience.
What I don't like is when somebody says, "The only way you find social is (the way Facebook operates)." Did we miss the boat on exactly how they do it? Of course we did. Everybody did.
Who's your biggest single competitor?
A: Facebook - not today, but they could be. If they keep going, they will have the vault of information on everybody in the world, and that's valuable.
Valuable, to the point of being scary?
A: Yes, creepy. I don't care to find an old boyfriend. One time, just to see if they got fat and bald, but then leave me alone. But I'm old.
You're introducing new forms of display advertising, including one that makes people feel as though they're turning pages in a magazine.
A: Too much of the advertising (on the Internet) is static and feels old-fashioned. So we like to work with the advertisers to say, "Let's kind of get in there and mix it up. Let's get people jolted awake again."
One of my favorites: Purina Puppy Chow has a little puppy walking across the top of the screen. I sit there like an idiot because it's cute, and I happen to like puppies. It drags the bowl. When Disney did their advertising for Alice in Wonderland you went to the front page, you open it up and this hole appears and you are sucked into it and you are in Wonderland. People clicked on that ad four and five times to replay it. It was fun.
These sound very intrusive to me. Sometimes I want to look at the screen and see what I want to see. I don't want the dog.
A: You can click on any of these and say, "Don't show me this."
You are making me do extra work.
A: Oh, excuse me, please. You are getting a lot of value. This is not like a free lunch here. We just opened a data center in Buffalo, and in its first phase it has 50,000 servers. That is not cheap. So the very fact that you get all this great information is part of the deal.
But we have something called an Ad Interest Manager. You can say, "Don't ever show me an ad again" or "Don't show me this kind of ad or that kind of ad." Less than 1% of the people elect not to.
Consumers also buy TiVo so that they can skip past the ads.
A: If people really don't want ads, they can go find their information however it is they want. It's a free world on that matter. What I'm saying is, I don't think you want bad ads.
You've said that Apple exercises too much control over the ads on its devices, and you said that can't last. Why?
A: If you want to run an ad on the iPad, it has to be approved by Apple. I don't think it is for us to say this ad isn't pretty enough and to go through this whole back-end process of approval. I don't think in the long run that's going to work. Advertisers will have other options.
What qualities does a leader need to be able to turn a company around? That's basically what you have been asked to do, right?
A: Yes. Any leader needs to be constantly interested in what's going on in the world, and constantly ready - even when things are going well - to change. In the case of a company as large as Yahoo (you have) to be honest about its shortcomings and be maniacal about how to get it better.
You had no background in computer design when you went to Autodesk. You had no background in media when you went to Yahoo. Did that help or hurt?
A: It's both. You have a freshness of having new eyes, but you also don't have the grounding. So you have to accommodate that with listening, learning, being willing to ask questions that might appear to be less than brilliant, and enjoying the business.
I would never do anything that I didn't enjoy. That's the whole thing. I couldn't go run a fruit business. That wouldn't do it for me. As long as you are inspired by it, you can learn anything.
What do you look for when you hire people?
A: I hire very high-level people, and so you are really checking to make sure they have a cultural fit and that sort of thing.
When you are talking about hiring somebody in their first, second, third job, you really are looking for excitement, some humbleness. So: eagerness to learn, eagerness to be involved in whatever the company is doing - and being willing to do the work you have to do at entry level.
How do you avoid groupthink?
A: Go talk to people at all levels in the organization and honestly ask their opinion. If you sit there quiet and interested, it comes out.
They will say to you, "Carol, I think that you are making a big, big mistake"?
A: Yes. I don't shoot people. In fact, I would shoot people that wouldn't take a risk.
Somebody showed me a slide to prove they were risk-taking and the top of the slide said "calculated risk." So I said, "OK, you already know it is going to work, right?" "Oh, yes, it will work." That's not a risk. That's just not a risk.
A lot of Internet-connected TVs offer Yahoo Widgets - apps that make it easy for viewers to do things like get sports scores or watch certain videos from the Web. What are the prospects for that business?
A: There's a whole lot of interesting tectonic plates moving around. When you have a nice, large screen, there's a lot you can do with it. And Yahoo wants to be there.
How concerned are you about Google TV, a new service that also provides an interface for TV viewers who want to access the Web?
A: It is not a slam-dunk. There's a lot of cable companies that want that business. There's a lot of TV makers that want Internet applications. So it is pretty hard whenever there's a new market forming to say, "Oh, that's the leader." It takes awhile to settle out.
About 86% of the country gets video from cable or satellite providers, and 2% get it from the Internet. How long will it be before that changes?
A: There's different kinds of video. If you are asking me whether the half-hour (TV) show and the hour show is going to be all consumed on the Internet, I don't think (that will happen) for a long time. It is going to take awhile to overcome the foothold that cable has.
How about for people who don't need 200 channels and just want to watch some news, a little bit of entertainment, maybe some sports?
A: There's 220 million websites, not 220 channels. It's too much. You want to have a place where you can trust what the news is or trust what sports is and get your job done.
Could you envision a Yahoo TV newscast?
A: We have that now, in a way. We have updates on Tech Ticker, one of our most popular shows. We have Primetime in No Time, which basically tells you in three, four minutes everything that happened in prime time. We have Daytime in No Time, which tells you what happened on all your soaps and Oprah and all that.
People flood to that stuff because who has got time to look at all of it? And those three- and five-minute video shows are very popular with the advertisers.
What is Yahoo?
Yahoo has great assets, but some people say they don't know what the company does or where it is going.
A: That exists in New York City and about 30 miles outside Silicon Valley. The rest of the world seems to know.
Yahoo is the largest media company in the world. We are twice as large as the nearest competitor. We do it through innovative technology and bringing people information they need to manage their lives. We serve up - and these numbers I hope will astound you - 10 billion ads a day.
Where do you feel that Yahoo has a weakness?
A: There's three big places that people go on the Internet: Facebook, Yahoo, Google. We play to our strengths, which by definition means we have weaknesses in other areas.
In January you gave yourself a B-minus for the first year. How about this year?
A: I'm off the grading thing. I'm just going to declare that we are pass-fail, and I pass.
Would you have hired someone like you to be CEO?
A: Let me answer a question you didn't ask. Am I the perfect person for the job at Yahoo? No. Am I good for the job? Yes.
What's your forecast for the economy?
A: Was there the word "economist" on my business card?
You have to have some idea, to make a business plan.
A: Of course you do. Now let me be serious. Last year, we said, by the third or fourth quarter of 2010, things will be better. This year, we are saying, by the third or fourth quarter of 2011.
We can't seem to get stability around employment, housing - all those issues that are making consumers less confident than they should be.
To be honest, we don't understand what goes on in Washington. A lot of rules keep changing. That erodes confidence. It is far from a healthy, vibrant economy.
Is that a commentary about President Obama's handling of the economy?
A: I am actually a very private political person, so I would not like to comment on that.
How will you vote in California? Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman is the GOP candidate for governor against Jerry Brown and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is the Republican against Sen. Barbara Boxer?
A: I'm voting for Meg and Carly, absolutely.
You are starting a local news operation for San Francisco. Tell us about your plans to offer local information.
A: We all live in a place. You live in small communities, and you are very interested in what happens in those communities from police blotters to what happened in the city council or the neighborhood watch. It is interesting to the consumer.
And it is interesting to the advertiser because it is the ultimate target. Statistics are 95% of our purchases are (made) within 2 miles of our house, 5 miles of our house.
There are a lot of people in local news. AOL has Patch. Local newspapers, radio stations, TV stations are online. Where do you fit in?
A: We have partnerships with local publications and an association with newspapers. They send us news feeds. We send viewers back to their dot-com locations. So we actually are very symbiotic with people like that.
But to answer more the spirit of your question, why can we succeed? I will give you the CEO answer: We do a better job. A better job in being a partner with local advertisers. A better job partnering with people actually writing from the community, not about the community. We have a lot of experience in this.
Can you clarify your position on net neutrality - the idea that Internet providers shouldn't be allowed to cut deals to transmit information from some Web services faster than others?
A: Everybody should have equal access (to the Internet). But we have to work out a system whereby folks that laid fiber and put the (broadband) infrastructure in get value for that.
I'm not sure that I'm smart enough to figure the answer out. But I don't think that two companies, or just the government, get to decide. People have to come to the table, get off the end positions and be more practical.
Rules should apply equally to wired and wireless?
A: I think so.
The Federal Trade Commission is looking at the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. In 1998 it barred Internet companies from collecting data on kids under 13. Should it apply to phones, gaming consoles and interactive TV?
A: Of course. Listen, anything that can protect our children from bad people, we have to do.
Should it include teens?
A: I would have no problem with that.
Yahoo is one of the Web's most popular news sources. What distinguishes your news from Google's or AOL's?
A: We not only license news feeds (for example from Reuters and the Associated Press), we also have our own editorial voice. We have human editors watching what seems to be interesting people, and feature that more prominently. So we are constantly tweaking what is delivered.
For instance, on our front page we have a module called "Today," which is what's happening. Every five minutes we serve up 32,000 different variations depending on what you seem to be interested in. So it is very personal. It is engaging.
Then we just bought a company called Associated Content: 380,000 writers, bloggers, in all the towns and cities who also contribute to this news feed. So it is a combination of what people can do and what machines can do.
Do you ever say, "Look, folks, here's something that you may not be interested in but you really ought to know"?
A: Absolutely. Listen, just because enough people weren't reading about the oil spill, we wouldn't pull it off the page. That's again what editors are for, that's what people's brains are for, to make those kind of judgment calls.
What's the basis for those judgments? The judgment you'd make for the National Enquirer would be different from what you'd make for The Economist.
A: Yes. We are neither the left voice nor the right voice. We try to be the center voice.
We are just selecting news that people actually have liked to read about. It is not our job to round people out. It is our job to be balanced and have a voice that is balanced and is dependable and trustworthy.
News organizations regularly run stories that antagonize some advertisers. How do you handle that?
A: We try not to antagonize our advertisers. Please, we never want to antagonize you. And we are careful. For instance, we have very, very intense technology that scans for nudity and bad words.
But when you have as many users as we do, almost 170 million in the U.S., everybody has opinions and (some) tell me that we should not have written this story and that story. But it isn't about doing something untrustworthy.
They used to say that Katharine Graham was a great CEO at the Washington Post because she loved the newsroom. That's not your background, but do you love the newsroom - or is it just a business?
A: What I like is the technology and how we can serve up information that, while we are global brand, feels very local and personal.
Where does mobile fit into your strategic plan?
A: We are just neck and neck with Google for mobile installations in the U.S. We don't have an operating system, but we have Yahoo Mail, Messenger, Finance - all those things. Mobile is huge for us, especially in emerging parts of the world where the only on-ramp to the Internet is going to be through a small screen. They are not going to have a desktop or laptop at home. But for the developed world, I don't think you are going to let this (small) size screen be the only ramp on to the Internet.
If you get a Google Android phone, all the Google applications just work. You are drawn into their world. Does Yahoo need a device of its own?
A: It isn't Google that gets to do that: It is what the carrier wants to do. By the way, there are many instances around the world where what comes up are Yahoo applications, not Google applications, even on an Android phone. The only one that actually controls that precisely is Apple.
So will we start seeing deals between Yahoo and some carriers?
A: Sure. We have deals now with carriers. A lot of it is international, but we power AT&T's website. We are really all over the place. If you are a Yahoo Finance advocate, you want Yahoo Finance in your mobile phone. So people's habits can stay with them.
ABOUT CAROL BARTZ
- Born: Winona, Minn.
- First big break: The president and managers of a bank where she worked while in high school helped her to get a college scholarship. "Without their help, I probably wouldn't be where I am today."
- College: University of Wisconsin, B.S. in computer science.
- First job after graduation: Selling automated banking services. "I drove around in my go-go boots to small towns and tried to convince little banks to automate."
- Best advice: From her grandmother, who raised her on a farm. "I was in the machine shed with my brother. We heard a rattlesnake above us and ran for Grandma. She grabbed a shovel, knocked the snake out of the rafters and chopped its head off. Then she said, 'You could have done that.' And you know what? She was right."
- Currently reading: Allegra Goodman's novel The Cookbook Collector.
- Favorite movie: Right now I'd say the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
- Current music playlist:Jack Johnson.
- Sports: Golf.
- Passion: Gardening. "It's the way I calm down."
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