SAN FRANCISCO--The first word that comes to Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz's mind when she hears the word "Facebook" is "competition," she revealed onstage at the Web 2.0 Summit this afternoon when conference host John Battelle engaged her in a lightning round of word associations. Google, meanwhile, prompted a response of "great company."
How times do change. Just a few years before she arrived at Yahoo, the company was offering Facebook $1 billion for an outright sale. Facebook turned it down; the seemingly unstoppable social network is rumored to be valued at over $40 billion and recently has launched new products that do indeed put it in direct competition with some of Yahoo's historic strengths (like e-mail). Yahoo, meanwhile, is said to be on the verge of more layoffs.
Bartz said that Yahoo's attempt to turn itself around is such an effort that instant results can't be expected. The company is "traveling up (Highway) 101 at 100 miles an hour, changing the tires," she said. ("We've heard that one before," Battelle said of her metaphor.)
She has, at the very least, refined her answer to the question "What is Yahoo?" to a list of the terms "content, communications, media, technology, (and) innovation." Bartz added: "I think it got off track a little bit when people thought it was a 'search company.'" (The company finalized a deal with Microsoft a year ago to power its search technology; Microsoft's own Bing search engine, one research firm found, now has more intentional search queries than Yahoo.)
Bartz now is looking to new and in-the-works "optimization" technologies to elevate its status as a hub for content and information, drawing on successes like Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Finance. Yahoo was attracted to freelance "content farm" Associated Content, which it acquired this year for about $100 million, because of "the technology they have put behind sourcing articles and understanding who the writers are that are getting the traffic." Yahoo has turned the purchase into the Yahoo Contributor Network, which will distribute the freelance content across Yahoo's network of sites.
Valley pundits and members of the traditional media business have been critical of the rise of "content farms" because of their prioritization of quick, cheap, search-engine-friendly media that they say will degrade the quality of digital content. So Yahoo's prioritization of the Contributor Network has been met with skepticism. But Bartz says she doesn't think that the world's tech and media hubs have the right perspective on Yahoo. The "real world," she said, believes in Yahoo and understands its mission.
"When you get 30 miles outside Silicon Valley and 60 miles outside New York, everyone knows what we stand for," Bartz said. "It's so much fun to travel."