Problems with Portals: Yahoo on Keeping Visitors Around

When you run a large portal site that provides updated information on a regular basis, one of the goals you have is keeping people on your site so that they can see your content and your advertising.

When you run a search engine, one of your goals is helping visitors find what they want quickly, showing them relevant advertising while they use your service to find other pages.

Yahoo is in the interesting position of being both portal and search engine, and that may provide some interesting challenges to what they have to offer.

A recent post at the Yahoo corporate blog (Yodel Anecdotal), Making new Yahoo! homepages your own, reflects a number of ways that Yahoo will likely use in the future, including a “My Favorites” section where you can place links to your favorite pages regardless of whether they are on Yahoo or not, a number of new applications, and new ways of looking at older applications such as your email. Local personalization will also be a feature of the home page, where you can see news and applications that are geared towards your location. The post tells us:

For example, the new homepage in India will include a Cricket app and a whole host of others that are India-centric, while the UK site will include apps such as underground alerts, news from the BBC, and more.

A new Yahoo patent granted this week describes some of the challenges that Yahoo faces as a portal site, and hints at the possibility of even further personalization and information aimed at your location, such as News and applications that might be available depending upon which State you live in. The patent’s focus is upon how Yahoo might change and update the news and information that it displays on its home page based upon interactions with its users.

In the “Background of the Invention” section of the patent filing are some interesting paragraphs on the problem that Yahoo is trying to address with the patent:

The hosting of web portals such as Yahoo.com is competitive. Central to such businesses is the attraction of a large number of users to the portal and keeping such users interested in the portal content. Portal search engine quality is one method for attracting users. However, more is needed to keep users at the portal site, as opposed to linking away from the portal to sites identified by search engine results. Although the way in which advertising revenues are computed can vary, such revenues are generally dependent upon not only the number of viewers that are attracted to a portal, but also the length of time such users stay at the portal. Therefore, portals have worked to extend the amount of interesting content that is found directly at the portal in order to retain users at the portal.

One way to attract and keep users at a portal is to provide useful information including, for example, breaking headline news, financial news stories, feature articles, stock quotes and the like. Such information attracts users to the portal and helps to retain such users at the portal for longer periods of time. However, users have unique interests. What one user finds to be noteworthy, another may find uninteresting. To attract a high volume of users, it is necessary to offer a wide array of topics at the portal web site. This puts a strain on the total web page real estate available at the portal. Of course, informational topics can be nested, so that the portal main page includes a series of links to other pages. While this technique is useful, it is somewhat unsatisfactory because it requires the users to spend a considerable amount of time sorting through lists of topics in order to find a topic that interests the user. Thus, when overused, links to other pages causes users to drop off to sites other than the portal, adversely affecting advertising and related revenue.

Thus, to remain competitive, web portals, as well as other entities interested in attracting large volumes of users to their web sites, have devised methods to reduce web site clutter while at the same time attempting to maximize user interest in the content that is offered on the web site. However, such attempts have been problematic. For example, user interests are constantly changing. What is an interesting story on one day to many users may suddenly become a story that enjoys very little user interest the next day. Furthermore, wrong choices can be made. For instance, a web site editor may select a news story that enjoys little to no popular interest.

The patent was originally filed in 2004, but the post from the Yahoo blog seems to validate at least some of the ideas that are contained within the granted patent. The patent is:

Systems and methods for adaptive scheduling of references to documents
Invented by Jeffrey E. F. Friedl and Kathleen L. Hartnack
Assigned to Yahoo
US Patent 7,539,674
Granted May 26, 2009
Filed July 22, 2004

It makes sense to try to gauge the interest of your visitors in news articles, feature stories, and other information that you might include upon a home page by carefully tracking how popular links to those features might be, and replacing them or updating them when interest doesn’t seem very high, or appears to have fallen off. Those articles or stories may be given more weight if they seem to be chosen by viewers and stay around for a while, or may be given less weight and may be removed.

Teasers, or a combination of links, snippet and images may be used for some articles or stories, and there may be more than one teaser for the same story. The effectiveness of those teasers may be compared to each other, and the ones that appear more successful may be shown more frequently.

Different Classes of Viewers and Different Content

The Yodel Anecdotal blog post tells us that Yahoo is experimenting with providing different news and applications to viewers in France, India and the UK.

The patent tells us that when visitors who have a Yahoo profile and are logged into Yahoo visit the portal, they may see information that is different for people who aren’t logged in, and their selections of what they click upon from news articles and feature stories and applications may influence what other people who share similar profiles may see:

The characteristics in the user profiles of users requesting host web page are used to stratify the user population into classes. Then, a different set of selection weights is refined for each class of users based on the popularity of documents within the class.

As I mentioned above, this might even be based upon which state a visitor lives in:

In one example, the characteristic that is used to stratify the user population into classes is geography. Each user is classified into a different geographical region (e.g., state) based on the correspondence address of the user. Then, each document is assigned a set of selection weights, one for each geographical region. In the case where the geographical region is a state, there will be selection weights for each document in document database, one for each state.

Other information may also influence what “class” or “classes” that a user of the portal may falls into. The patent tells us that those classes may include the following:

  • Gender
  • Date of birth
  • Occupation
  • Any interests or hobbies
  • Primary language spoken by the user
  • Political affiliation
  • Education level
  • Profession
  • Income level
  • Academic background and/or;
  • How often the user uses the portal

Is the Yahoo portal of the future one that might show very different information to visitors who have very different backgrounds and profiles?

Conclusion

If you run a site that could be considered a portal, how frequently do you update information on the front page of your site? How much attention to you pay to how frequently different articles and features are selected on that page?

Would you consider personalizing your main page to show different stories and features based upon aggregated selections of people from different locations, or different genders, or different political backgrounds? Is it possible that at some point, this kind of personalization can go too far?

It will be interesting to see how far Yahoo might go with the personalization of their portal page. It makes sense to show news and application to viewers in India or the UK that are relevant to those locations. I wonder how I would feel viewing a Yahoo that might show me different news and applications depending upon whether I was male or female, Republican or Democrat, or some other demographic contained in my profile. I don’t think I would like that.

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6 thoughts on “Problems with Portals: Yahoo on Keeping Visitors Around”

  1. Interesting. My site is a people search and public records portal with a Google search form and a Whitepages search form as well as links to the web’s top people search and public records site.

    To make the site a little more “sticky” I added a blog a few years ago that deals with news and information relating to people searches, public records searches and social network news. I have also added some content pages on people search and public records tips.

    Due to the nature of the site, I know that it will never be as “sticky” as a site that is more content and less link related. As a result, my main concern isn’t how long people stay on the site, but, rather, how many people visit the site.

  2. Hi People Finder,

    I find it intriguing to watch the competition between Google and Yahoo because of the different paths that each followed to get where they are today. Google, starting as a search engine, continues to present a very stark and simple face on their front page, where their primary focus is their search box. Yahoo, which began as a directory provides a very different experience, where you’re given many different choices and directions in addition to a search box. Both offer search, and are considered competitors as search engines, but it’s easy to see that Google and Yahoo have come from very different directions.

    It is interesting to look at both, and consider their different approaches to visitors, and to meeting the objectives behind their sites. Google wants you to visit, find what you’re looking for and leave, to return whenever you want to find something else. Yahoo wants to help you fulfill your informational needs as well, but is just as happy if you decide to spend time on their pages. But we have seen Google evolving to become more portal-like in some ways, offering more and more applications and services, just as Yahoo has evolved from directory to search engine.

    I think there are lessons to be learned from both for any site owners who want to attract more visitors to their pages and provide services and objectives that those visitors are interested in pursuing. Studying how a Google or Yahoo or Amazon or other sites work to attract, engage and interact with visitors can provide ideas that many site owners should think about. I do like seeing patents like this one that provide some insights into the business objectives behind a site like a Yahoo.

  3. You said it, man. Bartz (Yahoo!’s CEO) was in a recent interview and kept pressing how their challenge lies more in portals, not in search. I’m excited to see what Yahoo! does in the next year or so.

  4. Hi jlbraaten,

    Thanks – Good points. Yahoo’s websites do get a tremendous number of visitors, and search is only a part of what they do. I’m not quite sure that it’s all that meaningful in comparing Yahoo with others in terms of percentage of search.

    The new changes to Yahoo’s home page show a committment towards becoming a stronger portal. It will be pretty exciting to see what else they do in that direction over the next year. :)

  5. I frequently receive emails from others wanting to connect to me on some site. Yesterday found a connection request from an old friend; however, I was surprised to see that he wanted to connect on Yahoo!. It had all the hallmarks of a Plaxo or LinkedIn.

    That event along with the NAA conference where newspaper publishers are talking about paid content made me think of two things: German newspapers and Yahoo!. German newspapers have a type of freemium business model now, relying on users to enter through free content, but then pay to join groups which have a decidedly social media aspect. I was wondering if more portal sites would adopt this idea. I noticed that Yahoo has more articles which are paid ads similar to those on blogs. With this connection, I began to feel that they were looking to ideas in social media circles to keep users on site. It seems that they are testing various trends to make a portal site the place to hang out for a while.

  6. Hi Frank,

    Interesting about your connection request. I know that Yahoo finally announced a shutdown date (July 13th) for their Yahoo 360 sites in the past couple of days – stating that they hadn’t wanted to close those completely until they had found something to replace them with. It looks like they have added a blogging feature to Yahoo profiles. Adding more functionality to profiles might not be a bad idea at all, since everyone who creates an account with Yahoo has a profile.

    Yahoo does have a really diverse mix of services that they provide – some free, and some that they charge for, but many of them have seemed disconnected from each other in the past. I think they may have many of the ingredients to help them become a stronger portal, but haven’t worked on drawing them together in a way that makes it easier for visitors to access and use them all. There are lots of models that they could look at, like the German Newspaper sites. And they’ve had some significant success with some of the sites that they’ve acquired (Flickr, delicious, etc.) and that they’ve developed on their own. I think that if they draw those together in an intelligent fashion, they would really be doing themselves a favor.

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