"I noticed that Jerry Yang didn't mention the content aspect of all this," noted Tom Wolzien, senior media analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York.
Analysts applauded rival America Online's plans to feed video entertainment, music and news to broadband users via its threatened merger with Time-Warner and sneered at Yahoo's babysteps of partnering with content providers.
Even also-rans like Alta Vista were nattering about the need for "media" partners. "Either you do it, or you wither away and die," said vice-president Ross Levinson. "We've had conversations (about it), just as I'm sure all the other major portals have," he said.
Yang had to agree. "We have to grow," Yang said in April 1999. "[That's] the only thing that matters at the end of the day."
The time was right. Net fever had turned anything virtual into gold and brick-and-mortar into dross. With stock prices skyrocketing to its mind-numbing Jan 7, 2000 high of $250.06, the Yahoo brand had became a license to print gigabucks. Who could afford not to buy content builder GeoCities for $2.9 billion and Broadcast.com's streaming-video capability for $5.7 billion? Yahoo subsidiaries around the world also snapped up dozens of smaller content companies to flesh out their advertising franchises. Yang's vocabulary underwent a swift metamorphosis from the aw-shucks-we're-just-kids variety to the Gatesian we-must-be-all-things-to-all-people.
"One of our challenges going forward is to build that relationship with the average user on a more personalized basis, through our strategy of `Yahoo! Everywhere,'" proclaimed Yang on Sep 22, 2000. "You will see us being very opportunistic and aggressive."
And they were. Yang's folk-hero status -- in sharp counterpoint to Gates's Strangelovian/Darth Vader image -- added enormously to Yahoo's cultlike appeal with netizens. That grassroots support helped alchemize its grabbag of newly-acquired properties into beloved members of the Yahoo family. It all helped Yang & Co come out on top in the free-for-all to sear eyeballs with mega-brands. Despite Gates's belated but well-funded and much-ballyhooed internet manifesto, Yahoo remained the internet's most beloved brand as of September 2001 with 123.8 million unique global visitors per month to MSN's 113.1 million and AOL's 99.3 million. Even in the United States, Yahoo remained ahead of MSN (65.7 to 63.3 mil.), though both trailed AOL (77 mil.).
That was before Yahoo lost 98% of its market cap. In the smoking and cratered post-apocalypic landscape of 2002 it seemed naive, not to say downright stupid, even to talk of building companies driven by advertising. Pennypinching advertisers were demanding clickthroughs and "sponsored" searches was suddenly the only game in town. A now impoverished Jerry Yang -- whose paper fortune had been reduced from a $7-billion to $350-million in the space of a year -- was forced to go back on the road to trumpet Yahoo's recommitment to its core mission of being once again the net's best search tool.
An upstart named Google had all but obsoleted Yahoo's original-flavor hierarchical directories (remember "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle?") and a relentlessly deep-pocketed MSN was zeroing in to turn Yahoo into another Netscape. Yang fought back in 2003 by adding the search technology of Inktomi and the paid-search placement capabilities of Overture and went on the road to deflect Google's top search-brand status by claiming 50% of all searches worldwide. How was that possible? MSN was overture's top client.
"So far, there is no search engine, regardless of it being Yahoo, Google, MSN or AOL, which is capable of providing a perfect search solution," Yang reasoned in mid-March 2004. "Currently, 50 percent of search results fail to match the search parameters. Technology is the key to closing that gap. Thus, we have been constantly investing in and improving our search technology. The buy-out of Overture Services Inc last year is an example of our efforts, as it helped us to enhance search technology and expand the pay-for-performance search business. Besides, as Microsoft also uses our technology, it means that nearly 50 percent of all searches in the world use Yahoo technology. This coverage gives us the advantage of learning more about consumer behavior and what they want to find, which is a foundation for us to improve ourselves on."
Just as once all roads led to Rome, in the digital age, all roads seemed to lead to the technology of acquiring and selling eyeballs. By now it has become apparent to Jerry Yang, Bill Gates and every other netizen that the internet's killer app isn't email but the ability to find what you're looking for in the twinkling of an eyeball. As early as spring of 2003 Bill Gates had committed Microsoft to homegrowing its own search technology, but for the moment he finds himself relying on his net nemesis. In under eight years Jerry Yang had gone from trembling before the Gates of Hell to controlling his access to the engine that drives sponsored searches. PAGE 3