Yahoo 2.0: Stalwart Wrestles Startups in Internet's New Age

If one took a poll that asked ordinary Americans, "Which technology company has the most buzz?," the top responses might include Facebook, Twitter and Zynga, the company behind hot social-media games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars.

Yahoo? Not so much.

"I think it's a bit of a perception-of-reality problem," said Ross Levinsohn, Yahoo's executive vice president for the Americas. "Sixteen years as one of the premier sites in the world: That's a story that should be told."

Sure, but that's a different story. Buzz surrounds the new. Facebook is five years old -- late adolescence in cyber-chronology -- making 16 downright ripe.

"In Silicon Valley, the young eats its old," said Kara Swisher, co-producer of tech conference D: All Things Digital, and a journalist who's been covering technology since 1997.

But a lot of those young don't go on to become old.

"Look at the history -- it's strewn with companies that were worth billions of dollars and are now gone," Levinsohn said.

According to Levinsohn, the key to long-term success isn't the adage, "slow and steady wins the race."

"There's been great innovation here," he said. "Standing the test of time is really the hardest thing to do. So when you look around this campus and at our other offices, it's a testament to success. If we weren't successful, none of this would exist."

The big problem is that buzz isn't just about "street cred" but also Street cred -- Wall Street. Yahoo stock has been stuck in the same general place for years.

One reason is that Yahoo was late to the mobile-computing game, according to analysts like Swisher.

"There is a whole spate of interesting startups," she said, "all of them on mobile devices -- from Zynga to Angry Birds to Foursquare to Groupon -- and there are all sorts of things people can do now, and Yahoo doesn't have a piece in any of those."

What it has is half a billion visitors per month.

Yahoo's news site is the Internet's most visited, with 85 million monthly visitors. Its sports site also is tops, with 45 million visitors per month. Yahoo Mail is first in its category, with 90 million users (Google's Gmail is number two, with 52 million). Its OMG site is first in entertainment, more popular than TMZ and

"When you think about platforms in the world to touch people," said Levinsohn, "this is the biggest platform that exists for media worldwide instantly. ... Where else could I go to tell stories and provide information and provide things for consumers where I could touch hundreds of millions of people every month?"

Yahoo is -- as the numbers clearly show -- well known as a portal, but it is also a content producer. Its online sports program gets up to 1.8 million views per day, bigger than the viewership of ESPN's "SportsCenter." Its fashion show has attracted the biggest celebrities, such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

Now it is getting into the journalism business, complete with a newly built, humming newsroom. The idea is to take in stories from bloggers around the world, put them out, then track who's reading what. Using this data, the site greets visitors with a selection of stories that represent Yahoo's best guess as to what would interest him or her.

In addition, Yahoo is updating the search experience, an effort led by Blake Irving, whom Yahoo hired away from Microsoft. Yahoo searchers won't get the same old list of links, rather a list of possible answers to questions their search suggests they have.

Yahoo Made History: Isn't That Enough?

With all that, one wonders if it matters that Yahoo lacks buzz.

"I think it matters to a small subset of people," said Levinsohn. "I don't think it matters at the end of the day to consumers. I mean, Yahoo does more revenue in two weeks than Twitter will do all year, yet Twitter is the hottest thing going -- and rightfully so right now."

Levinsohn admits that Yahoo, with all its staying power and visitors, never saw Twitter -- and the social-media trend it epitomizes -- coming.

"No fault of anybody's, by the way," he added. "[Yahoo] was doing great in so many other categories that social snuck up on a lot of people."

Now Twitter's here, including as a clickable button on much of Yahoo's content. It makes Twitter -- not Yahoo -- look like the innovator. And that's the key to buzz -- to be seen as innovating.

So one could say Yahoo is the GE of the Internet: old, big, diverse -- and still innovative.

"Everybody has to just sort of take a breath and say, 'Wait a minute, you can't recreate this thing overnight,'" said Levinsohn. "Frankly, it's never really been replicated in the history of the Internet what Yahoo has done in the areas it's done it."