Bartz whiffs again on 'What is Yahoo?' question

Embattled CEO still unable to adequately define company (and it might not be her fault)

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She might have used fewer words than the last time she fumbled this question in public, but Yahoo chief executive Carol Bartz didn't do herself any favors Tuesday at the Web 2.0 Summit when she responded once again to, "What is Yahoo?":

"I think Yahoo is a simple story: we're a tech company, we're content, we're media, we're innovative. We have that quality, and it allows us to really personalize the Web."

(Also see: Maybe Yahoo just can't be fixed)

Talk about empty calories. What does any of that mean? "We're a tech company"? Now there's a differentiator. "We're content"? "We're media"? "We're innovative"? If this were an elevator pitch for a start-up seeking funding, the VCs would have gotten off two floors early just to avoid the embarrassment.

And as for "it allows us to really personalize the Web," guess what? Users can personalize the Web themselves these days using iGoogle or any other number of browser tools. They don't need Yahoo to do it for them.

As I've argued before, it's hard to blame Bartz for inheriting the mess that is Yahoo. But she keeps coming up empty in her efforts to articulate a clear vision for the company, and she's the one who's supposed to be leading Yahoo out of its identity crisis and stock-price malaise. If I were an investor, I'd find this highly troubling.

That being said, Tuesday's response was light years better than the one she gave to Michael Arrington at TechCrunch Disrupt last May, an answer so rambling it required an intermission:

"What is Yahoo?…Listen Yahoo is a great company that is very, very strong in content for its users, uses amazing technology to serve up what increasingly we think is going to be the web of one. For instance, on our today module in the front page, every 5 minutes we have 32,000 different variations of that module. So you don’t even know what I’m seeing in fact we serve a million different front page modules a day and that’s just through content optimization. And that’s just the beginning…Customized because we know the things you’re interested in. Maybe you don’t like light entertainment maybe you like a certain sports team, etc., etc. And our click through rate went up twice. So the point is, people come to us to find out what is going on with the world in a very nice quick fashion to do their communications, email, messenger, check-in on their teens. We all know about Yahoo finance. It’s a places where you can just get it together. It’s collated for you, it’s all the things as you’re moving, you can even get your social information there. Everybody moves through many websites in a day, Yahoo is one they always stop at."

Of course, that last part is just silly. There are millions of people who spend all day online and never once visit Yahoo. I'm one of them. But Bartz did say something in her most recent attempt at defining the company that is true: "Yahoo is a simple story." And it's the story of a company that tried to do too many things and lost its focus, and thus its identity. It doesn't appear to be any closer to regaining that identity than when Bartz took over nearly two years ago. But at least she uses less time to convey this muddled reality. Perhaps that's some measure of progress.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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