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Yahoo, a train wreck in slow motion

12 January 2017

Way back at the dawn of the interwebs, one of the first websites I ever used was Yahoo.

Comparatively speaking, there wasn't a lot to see in cyberspace way back then and what there was could be very hard to find -- which is the reason Yahoo was born.

A directory of websites, neatly categorised and also accessible by way of a search, Yahoo become the default "gateway" to most of the wonderful things that the Net had to offer. What's more, it was clean, lean and actually usable even with the archaic dial-up technology of the day.

As commercial entities began to discover the Net, the volume and scope of content to be found grew at an exponential rate and soon Yahoo began to face some stiff competition from search engines which used "spiders" to index the content. Never the less, Yahoo had developed such a powerful brand that it remained one of the top trafficked sites, despite the appearance of AltaVista, Lycos and, eventually, Google.

Even today, thanks largely due to content-sharing arrangements with ISPs and other organisations, Yahoo still accounts for a handsome amount of the traffic on the web -- although it's nowhere near as much as back in those pre-dot-com bust days of last century.

Many commentators say that Yahoo began a very steep decline in both popularity and performance when they took former Google employee Marissa Mayer onboard as CEO and it's hard to argue with that.

Right from the start it appeared as if Ms Mayer was out of her depth and struggling to deal with the issues that the company faced when she was appointed.

Her attempts to change the culture backfired quite significantly and it appears as if she was too busy dusting the furniture to notice the cracks in the roof, walls and floor that were growing to gargantuan proportions.

Security seemed to be a low priority for the company and, as a result, there are the now infamous string of exploits that ultimate exposed over a billion accounts to hackers.

One of the few things the company had done right was to take a stake in the Chinese etailer Alibaba -- but even that hasn't really saved them from the steep decline that has occurred under Ms Mayer's management.

Now the company is on the block and Verizon, a very large US telco, is "probably" going to consummate a deal to buy it.

So what are they buying?

Well Yahoo still has a lot of users. It has the ability to display a lot of ads to a lot of people (and generate revenues in the process) and it has its brand -- tarnished as it may be.

The thousands of valuable patents that Yahoo has registered are not included in the sale to Verizon though. They've been moved into another company, perhaps as a way of milking the maximum amount of shareholder value from the sale.

Now, believe it or not, the company is considering changing its name (rebranding) from Yahoo to "Altaba".

What the?

Despite the problems of the past, there is still a huge amount of value in the name Yahoo (just look at how many email addresses are @yahoo.com for a start) so rebranding at this point would seem to be an exercise in brand destruction.

Apparently (according to this report), it is going to change from being an "actual business" to nothing more than a wrapper around Alibaba stock once the web-based stuff is sold to Verizon.

So what will happen to the hundreds of millions of active Yahoo Mail accounts? Will the continue to operate unchanged or will they now become @verizon.net accounts -- inflicting a huge amount of hurt on users who'll have to change a mass of their other Net-based activities to reflect this?

Ultimately, the mismanagement of Yahoo's online operations will go down in history as a wonderful example of how to create a small fortune -- after starting with a huge one.

As for Merissa Mayer... some commentators suggest that she will now be unemployable but I don't think she'll care much. With a lump sum severance package measured in tens of millions of dollars, she'll never have to work another day in her life anyway.

As the Chinese would say, we live in "interesting times".

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