It's a shame that Yahoo, in a frantic bid to grow stalled revenue, has decided to join search market leader Google in keeping user data far longer than is necessary.
Yahoo announced on Friday that it will retain user search records for 18 months, reversing a position it staked out in December 2008, when the company said it would delete search data after only 90 days.
That move was cheered at the time by privacy advocates, who opposed the search industry's standard practice of hanging on to user data for an unreasonable amount of time.
Back then, Anne Toth, Yahoo's vice president of policy and head of privacy, said, "This policy represents Yahoo!'s assessment of the minimum amount of time we need to retain data in order to respond to the needs of our business while deepening our trusted relationship with users. We're proud this new policy sets a new benchmark for the industry."
Apparently pride has an expiration date, because in a blog post on Monday, Toth said, "Over the past several years it’s clear that the Internet has changed, our business has changed, and the competitive landscape has changed. We have gone back to the drawing board to ensure that our policies will support the innovative products we want to deliver for our consumers."
However, this decline in fortune has nothing to do with jettisoning user data sooner than Google. Yahoo's problems over the past few years have to do with poor management and a startling lack of focus that makes it hard for the company to carve out a distinct identity in the online world. We all know what Google is about. We all know what Facebook is about. What's Yahoo about? (Don't bother asking CEO Carol Bartz.)
You can't help assuming that some genius at Yahoo concluded that the company could charge advertisers more by offering a larger database of user search records, which presumably would enable more targeted marketing and usher in a new era of awesome prosperity for the company.
The truth is, though, that 18 months of user data has no more intrinsic value than 90 days. Sure, advertisers may think it does -- and on that basis I'll grant that Yahoo's reversal could make some sense -- but to put it bluntly, those advertisers are idiots.
Here's why: For the most part, people don't change. Your interests 18 months ago are pretty much the same as they are now. If you were into the Pittsburgh Steelers or Radiohead back in October 2009, you probably are now. What real value does that old data have to advertisers?
Let's say you disagree with that premise and you argue that people do change over time, or at least that their circumstances change. They graduate from college and enter the workforce, they discover an exciting new interest or hobby, they get married, etc.
It's a defensible theory. But under those circumstances, how relevant or valuable is 18-month-old search data?
By reversing course and mining customer data going back a year and half, Yahoo admittedly is no worse than Google. That's nothing to brag about, and the policy change isn't going to get Yahoo out of the woods.