Yahoo's Chance To Defeat Google in the Arena That Really Counts

Yahoo has the misfortune of being a successful company that is constantly compared to an even more successful one, Google. Despite some very canny acquisitions (such as and flickr), it has gone through a number of strategic shifts, the most recent abandoned one being the Semel/Braun attempt to turn the portal into something more like an interactive Hollywood studio. The Internet company still has some tremendous resources. It did, after all, take in more than $6 billion last year and enjoy a profit of $3.75 billion. And many million people use its service every day: More people use Yahoo email than any other such service. That’s its core. So what’s Jerry Yang, Yahoo’s founder and new CEO, to do?

Regardless of whether the board considers Yang an interim seat-warmer or a permanent boss (all public statements suggest it is the latter), he may be what the company needs most now: a visible reminder of its roots, as a small, scrappy, hungry, innovative company. Of course, as it matured, Yahoo was overtaken by the at-the-time smaller, scrappier, hungrier, more innovative company Google.

What set Google apart? It wasn’t just that its search engine was more effective, or that its interface was beautifully austere at a time when every other search engine was stuffing its pages with more and more dancing baloney. What also set Google apart was a sense that it was a different kind of company, a company that introduced itself to the world with a promise, a promise to not be evil.

That’s not an arena in which Yahoo has been operating. When it’s not handing over member information to the Chinese government, it’s blocking pro-human-rights moves by its shareholders and defending its actions before a Congressional committee.

But it’s not an arena in which Google has been operating either. It has generated open letters from Chinese bloggers (cited previously on Radar by Brady Forrest). And Google’s board of directors has advised its shareholders to vote against anti-censorship proposals.

Google is too far ahead of Yahoo in the current search generation for Yahoo to win. But Yahoo might just regain its scrappiness and innovation — its sense of purpose, even — by taking on Google where the search giant is faltering: In its not living up to its admonition “Don’t be evil.” Google started by supplying search results for Yahoo and then besting Yahoo at its own game; Yahoo could return the favor by taking the most high-profile differentiator Google has — “Don’t be evil” — and claiming it for itself. As Nat Torkington has pointed out recently on the Radar back-channel, “don’t be evil” is a great differentiator. Nobody’s doing that right now. A company with $6 billion in revenues and hundreds of millions of customers fighting against censorship? It might finally be a fair fight, a fight in which Yahoo would become something it isn’t seen as now: a leader. At a time when the Net is in very real danger of becoming much more closed, who would you want to give your business to?