Yahoo and the Transitory World


The writing has been on the wall for some time. But where once it spelled out Yahoo, it now says Altaba.

The Yahooligans are no more, have ceased to be, bereft of life, they rest in peace. Marissa Mayer may be riding off into the Silicon Valley sunset with her golden parachute trailing behind. The parking lot attendants at 701 First Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA could soon be sandblasting her name off the CEO’s reserved parking spot. And, predictably, we Internet codgers are mourning the loss of yet another digital pioneer.

But here’s the thing. For the last 150 years the point of a corporation is to not be a permanent fixture. And, in this world, that’s truer than ever. So we’d better get use to stepping around a growing pile of corporate corpses.

The notion of a corporation has been around since Roman times. The name comes from the Latin corpus (body) and means “body of people.” The original idea was that a corporation would live on beyond the lifespan of any of its members. This has certainly been true of the Stora Kopparberg, a mining community in Sweden, the oldest corporation in the world. It started in 1347.

But things changed in 1855 with the passing of the Limited Liability act in England. This flipped the idea of the perpetuity of a corporation on its head. This legislation allowed shareholders to walk away from the wreckage of a failed corporation without assuming any personal liability. It enabled serial entrepreneurialism and lowered the threshold of tolerable risk.

In short, corporate limited liability law made it okay for business people to try and possibly fail.

In the century and a half since the passing of the limited Liability Act (and similar legislation in most US states) we somehow believed that corporations existed to build size and scale, as befits a market that’s pre-occupied with mass. Economist Ronald Coase said the reason corporations exist is that because in imperfect markets, there is less friction doing things inside an organization than outside, making corporate structures more profitable than open markets. That was true in markets that built physical things from raw materials scattered around the world and then also had to distribute those things to distant markets.

But that’s not the world we live in. The world we live in is the world of rapid iteration and Eric Ries’ “Minimum Viable Product”. Increasingly, these products are not made of physical stuff but of digital bytes, where there is very little in the way of transactional costs.

I think we have to start thinking of the Minimum Viable Company – companies that can be assembled quickly around a market need but also can be disassembled and repurposed quickly. In today’s world, that’s the purpose of an organization and it’s a transitory thing.

In their book Creative Destruction, Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan envision a new corporate structure more like a venture capital fund. A corporation should be made up of a number of transitory operating units that explore market opportunities in a Darwinian fashion. Arguably, this is closer to the model adopted by Google with Alphabet and, ironically, the new corporate structure of Altaba.

But even here, corporate hubris tends to get in the way. At some point, inevitably, the powers that be begin to believe they’re smarter than the market and build an illusion of sustainability. As economist Joseph Schumpeter said, “The problem that is usually being visualized is how capitalism administers existing structures, whereas the relevant problem is how it creates and destroys them.” Corporations have a vested interest in the status quo. Cognitive biases being what they are, we’ll always favor on the side of what we have rather than what we should build. For this reason, I think Coase’s justification for the corporation might be on its last legs.

That was definitely true of Yahoo. It was a corporation that lived beyond its time. Sooner or later, that had to catch up with it.



The Rise of the Audience Marketplace


Far be it from me to let a theme go before it has been thoroughly beaten to the ground. This column has hosted a lot of speculation on the future of advertising and media buying and today, I’ll continue in that theme.

First, let’s return to a column I wrote almost a month ago about the future of advertising. This was a spin-off on a column penned by Gary Milner – The End of Advertising as We Know It. In it, Gary made a prediction: “I see the rise of a global media hub, like a stock exchange, which will become responsible for transacting all digital programmatic buys.”

Gary talked about the possible reversal of fragmentation of markets by channel and geographic area due to the potential centralization of digital media purchasing. But I see it a little differently than Gary. I don’t see the creation of a media hub – or, at least – that wouldn’t be the end goal. Media would simply be the means to the end. I do see the creation of an audience market based on available data. Actually, even an audience would only be the means to an end. Ultimately, we’re buying one thing – attention. Then it’s our job to create engagement.

The Advertising Research Foundation has been struggling with measuring engagement for a long time now. But it’s because they were trying to measure engagement on a channel-by-channel basis and that’s just not how the world works anymore. Take search, for example. Search is highly effective at advertising, but it’s not engaging. It’s a connecting medium. It enables engagement, but it doesn’t deliver it.

We talk multi-channel a lot, but we talk about it like the holy grail. The grail in this cause is an audience that is likely to give us their attention and once they do that – is likely to become engaged with our message. The multi-channel path to this audience is really inconsequential. We only talk about multi-channel now because we’re stopping short of the real goal, connecting with that audience. What advertising needs to do is give us accurate indicators of those two likelihoods: how likely are they to give us their attention and what is their potential proclivity towards our offer. The future of advertising is in assembling audiences – no matter what the channel – that are at a point where they are interested in the message we have to deliver.

This is where the digitization of media becomes interesting. It’s not because it’s aggregating into a single potential buying point – it’s because it’s allowing us to parallel a single prospect along a path of persuasion, getting important feedback data along the way. In this definition, audience isn’t a static snapshot in time. It becomes an evolving, iterative entity. We have always looked at advertising on an exposure-by-exposure basis. But if we start thinking about persuading an audience that paradigm needs to be shifted. We have to think about having the right conversation, regardless of the channel that happens to be in use at the time.

Our concept of media happens to carry a lot of baggage. In our minds, media is inextricably linked to channel. So when we think media, we are really thinking channels. And, if we believe Marshall McLuhan, the medium dictates the message. But while media has undergone intense fragmentation they’ve also become much more measurable and – thereby – more accountable. We know more than ever about who lies on the other side of a digital medium thanks to an ever increasing amount of shared data. That data is what will drive the advertising marketplace of the future. It’s not about media – it’s about audience.

In the market I envision, you would specify your audience requirements. The criteria used would not be so much our typical segmentations – demography or geography for example. These have always just been proxies for what we really care about; their beliefs about our product and predicted buying behaviors. I believe that thanks to ever increasing amounts of data we’re going to make great strides in understanding the psychology of consumerism. These  will be foundational in the audience marketplace of the future. Predictive marketing will become more and more accurate and allow for increasingly precise targeting on a number of behavioral criteria.

Individual channels will become as irrelevant as the manufacturer that supplies the shock absorbers and tie rods in your new BMW. They will simply be grist for the mill in the audience marketplace. Mar-tech and ever smarter algorithms will do the channel selection and media buying in the background. All you’ll care about is the audience you’re targeting, the recommended creative (again, based on the mar-tech running in the background) and the resulting behaviors. Once your audience has been targeted and engaged, the predicted path of persuasion is continually updated and new channels are engaged as required. You won’t care what channels they are – you’ll simply monitor the progression of persuasion.


A Possibly Premature Post-Mortem on Yahoo

NOV. 5, 2014, FILE PHOTO FILE - In this Nov. 5, 2014, file photo, a person walks in front of a Yahoo sign at the company's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif. Yahoo reports financial results on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Last Thursday, Yahoo held it ‘s annual shareholder meeting. At that meeting, CEO Marissa Mayer dealt the company a doubled down kiss of death. She stated the goals of the board are fully aligned with one clear priority: “delivering shareholder value to all of you.” She further mentioned, when dealing with the divesture of all that once was Yahoo, that she’s “been very heartened by the level of interest in Yahoo. It validates our business processes as well as our achievements to date.”

It’s fancier language, but it’s basically the same as the butcher saying, “This cow is no longer viable as a cow, so I’m looking at it as a collection of rump roasts, T-Bones and hamburger. I’m hoping we have more of the former and less of the later.”

Yahoo_1996I first encountered Yahoo in 1995, shortly after it’s brief life as Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web. I think it was probably still parked on Stanford’s servers at the time. At the time, the Internet was like the world’s biggest second-hand store – a huge collection that was 95% junk/5 % useful stuff with no overarching order or organization. David Filo and Jerry Yang’s site was one of the very first to try to provide that order.

As an early search marketer in the run up to the dot-com bubble, you couldn’t ignore the Yahoo directory. The Yahooligans walked with typical Valley swagger. Hubris was never in short supply. They were the cocks of the walk and they knew it.

It was a much-humbled post-bubble Yahoo that I visited in 2004. They had got their search asses soundly kicked by Google, who was now powering their non-directory results. The age of the curated directory was gone, replaced by the scalability of algorithmic search.

As a culture, the Yahooligans were struggling with the mixed management signals that came from then CEO Terry Semel and his team. Sunnyvale was clouded in a purple haze. The Yahooligans didn’t know who the hell they were or what they were supposed to do. Where they a tech company or an entertainment company? The answer, as it turned out, was neither.

I met with the remnants of the once mighty search team to talk about user behaviors. I didn’t know it at the time, but Yahoo was gearing up to relaunch their search service. A much vilified paid inclusion program would also be debuted. It was one of many ill-fated attempts to find the next “Big Thing.”

Marissa Mayer continues to put a brave face on it, but the Yahoo engine ran out of steam at least a decade and a half ago. What amazes me is how long the ride has been. There is a message here for tech-based companies.

If you dig down to the critical incubation period of any tech company, you find a recurring pattern. Some technologically mediated connection allows people to do something they were previously unable to do. This releases pent up market demand. It’s like a thin sliver trying to poke through a water balloon. If successful, this released market demand creates an immediate and sizable audience for whomever introduced the innovation. Yahoo’s directory, Google’s PageRank, Facebook’s “Facemash”, AirBnB’s accommodation directory, Uber’s ridesharing app – they all share the same modus operandi – a tech-step forward creates a new audience and market opportunity.

In hindsight, once you strip away all the hype, it’s amazing how tenuous and unimpressive these technological advances are. Luck and timing typically play a huge part. If the conditions are right, the sliver eases through the balloon’s membrane and for a time, there is a steady stream of opportunity.

The problem is that is that as easily as these markets form, they can just as easily evaporate. When the technological advantage passes to the next competitor, as it did when Yahoo gave way to Google, all that’s left is the audience. When you consider that Yahoo has been coasting on this audience for close to two decades, it’s rather amazing that Mayer still has any assets at all to sell.


How We Might Search (On the Go)

Girl hand touching screen on modern mobile smart phone. Close-up image with shallow depth of field focus on finger.

As I mentioned in last week’s column – Mediative has just released a new eyetracking study on mobile devices. And it appears that we’re still conditioned to look for the number one organic result before clicking on our preferred destination.


It appears that things might be in the process of changing. This makes sense. Searching on a mobile device is – and should be – significantly different from searching on a desktop. We have different intents. We are interacting with a different platform. Even the way we search is different.

Searching on a desktop is all about consideration. It’s about filtering and shortlisting multiple options to find the best one. Our search strategies are still carrying a significant amount of baggage from what search was – an often imperfect way to find the best place to get more information about something. That’s why we still look for the top organic listing. For some reason we still subconsciously consider this the gold standard of informational relevancy. We measure all other results against it. That’s why we make sure we reserve one slot from the three to five available in our working memory (I have found that the average person considers about 4 results at a time) for its evaluation.

But searching on a mobile device isn’t about filtering content. For one thing, it’s absolutely the wrong platform to do this with. The real estate is too limited. For another, it’s probably not what we want to spend our time doing. We’re on the go and trying to get stuff done. This is not the time for pausing and reflecting. This is the time to find what I’m looking for and use it to take action.

This all makes sense but the fact remains that the way we search is a product of habit. It’s a conditioned subconscious strategy that was largely formed on the desktop. Most of us haven’t done enough searching on mobile devices yet to abandon our desktop-derived strategies and create new mobile specific ones. So, our subconscious starts playing out the desktop script and only varies from it when it looks like it’s not going to deliver acceptable results. That’s why we’re still looking for that number one organic listing to benchmark against

There were a few findings in the Mediative study that indicate that our desktop habits may be starting to slip on mobile devices. But before we review them, let’s do a quick review of how habits play out. Habits are the brains way of cutting down on thinking. If we do something over and over again and get acceptable results, we store that behavior as a habit. The brain goes on autopilot so we don’t have to think our way through a task with predictable outcomes.

If, however, things change, either in the way the task plays out or in the outcomes we get, the brain reluctantly takes control again and starts thinking its way through the task. I believe this is exactly what’s happening with our mobile searches. The brain desperately wants to use its desktop habits, but the results are falling below our threshold of acceptability. That means we’re all somewhere in the process of rebuilding a search strategy more suitable for a mobile device.

Mediative’s study shows me a brain that’s caught between the desktop searches we’ve always done and the mobile searches we’d like to do. We still feel we should scroll to see at least the top organic result, but as mobile search results become more aligned with our intent, which is typically to take action right away, we are being side tracked from our habitual behaviors and kicking our brains into gear to take control. The result is that when Google shows search elements that are probably more aligned with our intent – either local results, knowledge graphs or even highly relevant ads with logical ad extensions (such as a “call” link) – we lose confidence in our habits. We still scroll down to check out the organic result but we probably scroll back up and click on the more relevant result.

All this switching back and forth from habitual to engaged interaction with the results ends up exacting a cost in terms of efficiency. We take longer to conduct searches on a mobile device, especially if that search shows other types of results near the top. In the study, participants spent an extra 2 seconds or so scrolling between the presented results (7.15 seconds for varied results vs. 4.95 seconds for organic only results). And even though they spent more time scrolling, more participants ended up clicking on the mobile relevant results they saw right at the top.

The trends I’m describing here are subtle – often playing out in a couple seconds or less. And you might say that it’s no big deal. But habits are always a big deal. The fact that we’re still relying on desktop habits that were laid down over the past two decades show how persistent then can be. If I’m right and we’re finally building new habits specific to mobile devices, those habits could dictate our search behaviors for a long time to come.

In Search- Even in Mobile – Organic Still Matters

Biometrics, conceptual image

I told someone recently that I feel like Rick Astley. You know, the guy that had the monster hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” in 1987 and is still trading on it almost 30 years later? He even enjoyed a brief resurgence of viral fame in 2007 when the world discovered what it meant to be “Rickrolled”

google-golden-triangle-eye-trackingFor me, my “Never Gonna Give You Up” is the Golden Triangle eye tracking study we released in 2005. It’s my one hit wonder (to be fair to Astley, he did have a couple other hits, but you get the idea). And yes, I’m still talking about it.

The Golden Triangle as we identified it existed because people were drawn to look at the number one organic listing. That’s an important thing to keep in mind. In today’s world of ad blockers and teeth gnashing about the future of advertising, there is probably no purer or more controllable environment than the search results page. Creativity is stripped to the bare minimum. Ads have to be highly relevant and non-promotional in nature. Interaction is restricted to the few seconds required to scan and click. If there was anywhere where ads might be tolerated, its on the search results page


If we fully trusted ads – especially those as benign as those that show up on search results – there would have be no Golden Triangle. It only existed because we needed to see that top Organic result and dragging our eyes down to it formed one side of the triangle.

eyetracking2014Fast forward almost 10 years. Mediative, which is the current incarnation of my old company, released a follow up two years ago. While the Golden Triangle had definitely morphed into a more linear scan, the motivation remained – people wanted to scan down to see at least one organic listing. They didn’t trust ads then. They don’t trust ads now.

Google has used this need to anchor our scanning with the top organic listing to introduce a greater variety of results into the top “hot zone” – where scanning is the greatest. Now, depending on the search, there is likely to be at least a full screen of various results – including ads, local listings, reviews or news items – before your eyes hit that top organic web result. Yet, we seem to be persistent in our need to see it. Most people still make the effort to scroll down, find it and assess its relevance.

It should be noted that all of the above refers to desktop search. But almost a year ago, Google announced that – for the first time ever – more searches happened on a mobile device than on a desktop.

eyetracking mobile.pngMediative just released a new eye-tracking study (Note: I was not involved at all with this one). This time, they dove into scan patterns on mobile devices. Given the limited real estate and the fact that for many popular searches, you would have to consciously scroll down at least a couple times to see the first organic result, did users become more accepting of ads?

Nope. They just scanned further down!

The study’s first finding was that the #1 organic listing still captures the most click activity, but it takes users almost twice as long to find it compared to a desktop.

The study’s second finding was that even though organic is still important, position matters more than ever. Users will make the effort to find the top organic result and, once they do, they’ll generally scan the top 4 results, but if they find nothing relevant, they probably won’t scan much further. In the study, 92.6% of the clicks happened above the 4th organic listing. On a desktop, 84% of the clicks happened above the number 4 listing.

The third listing shows an interesting paradox that’s emerging on mobile devices: we’re carrying our search habits from the desktop over with us – especially our need to see at least one organic listing. The average time to scan the top sponsored listing was only 0.36 seconds, meaning that people checked it out immediately after orienting themselves to the mobile results page, but for those that clicked the listing, the average time to click was 5.95 seconds. That’s almost 50% longer than the average time to click on a desktop search. When organic results are pushed down the page because of other content, it’s taking us longer before we feel confident enough to make our choice. We still need to anchor our relevancy assessment with that top organic result and that’s causing us to be less efficient in our mobile searches than we are on the desktop.

The study also indicated that these behaviors could be in flux. We may be adapted our search strategies for mobile devices, but we’re just not quite there yet. I’ll touch on this in next week’s column.









The Face of Disruption


If you ask publishing giant Elsevier, Alexandra Elbakyan is a criminal – a pernicious pirate.

If you ask the Lifeboat Foundation, or blogger P.Z Myers, or millions of students around the world, Alexandra Elbakyan is a hero.

Labels can be tricky things, especially in a world of disruption.

ElboykanMs. Elbakyan certainly doesn’t look like a criminal. You would walk right past her on a campus quad and think nothing of it. She looks pretty much what you would expect a post-grad neuroscience student from Kazakhstan to look like.

But her face is the face of disruption. And she’s at the receiving end of a lawsuit launched by Elsevier that, if you were to take it seriously, would be worth several billion dollars.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a column about the academic journal racket. The work of thousands of researchers is published by Elsevier and others and remains locked behind hugely expensive pay walls. Elbakyan, as a post-grad research student at a university that couldn’t afford to pay the licensing fees to gain access to these journals, got frustrated. In a letter she wrote in response to the lawsuit, she elaborated on this frustration:

“When I was a student in Kazakhstan University, I did not have access to any research papers. These papers I needed for my research project. Payment of 32 dollars is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research. I obtained these papers by pirating them.”

Elbaykan was not alone in this piracy.

“Later I found there are lots and lots of researchers (not even students, but university researchers) just like me, especially in developing countries. They created online communities (forums) to solve this problem.”

“…to solve this problem.” There, in a nutshell, is the source of disruption. Elbakyan thought there had to be a more efficient way to facilitate this communal piracy and turned to technology, launching the Sci-Hub search portal in 2011. Depending on the donation of access keys from academics at institutions that had subscriptions to research publishers, Sci-Hub bypasses the paywall and locates the paper a researcher is looking for. It then delivers the paper and saves a copy for LibGen, a library of “pirated” papers that will continue to be freely available to future researchers. The LibGen database now has over 48 million papers available.

Is Elbaykan guilty of piracy? Absolutely – as it’s defined by the law. She makes no bones about the fact. She uses the term repeatedly in her own letter of defense.

But, in that letter, Alexandra Elbaykan also appeals to a higher law – the law of fairness. She is not stealing from the authors of that research, who receive no compensation for their work from the publisher. When Elsevier claims “irreparable harm” the only harm that can be identified is to their own business model. There is no harm to academics, who are becoming increasingly hostile to the business practices of publishers like Elsevier. There is certainly no harm to fellow researchers, who now have open access to knowledge, helping them in their own work. And there is no harm to the public, who can only benefit from the more open sharing of knowledge amongst academics. The only one hurt here is Elsevier.

According to RELX’s (the parent company of Elsevier) 2014 annual report, the company raked in £ 2,944 M ($4.23 billion US) from it’s various subscription businesses. The Scientific, Technical and Medical division (the same division that Elbaykan “irreparably harmed”) had revenues of £ 2,048 M ($2.94 B US) and a tidy little operating profit of £787 M ($ 1.13 B US).

Poor Elsevier.

The question that should be asked here is not whether Elsevier’s business model has been harmed, but rather, does it deserve to live? According to that same annual report, they “help scientists make new discoveries, lawyers win cases, doctors save lives and executives forge commercial relationships with their clients.”

Actually, no.

Elsevier does none of those things. The information they deal in does those things. And that same information is finding a way to be free, thanks to people like Alexandra Elbaykan. Elsevier is just the middleman who is being cut out of the supply chain through technology.

The American legal system will undoubtedly side with Elsevier. The law, as it is currently written, defends the right of a corporation to do business, whether or not people like you and me deem that business ethical. But ultimately, we rely on our laws to be fair, and what is fair depends on the context of our society. That context can be changed through the forces of disruption.

Sometimes, disruption comes in the guise of a young post grad student from Kazakhstan.

How Activation Works in an Absolute Value Market

As I covered last week, if I mention a brand to you – like Nike, for instance – your brain immediately pulls back your own interpretation of the brand. What has happened, in a split second, is that the activation of that one node – let’s call it the Nike node – triggers the activation of several related nodes in your brain, which is quickly assembled into a representation of the brand Nike. This is called Spreading Activation.

This activation is all internal. It’s where most of the efforts of advertising have been focused over the past several decades. Advertising’s job has been to build a positive network of associations so when that prime happens, you have a positive feeling towards the brand. Advertising has been focused on winning territory in this mental landscape.

Up to now, we have been restricted to this internal landscape when making consumer decisions by the boundaries of our own rationality. Access to reliable and objective information about possible purchases was limited. It required more effort on our part than we were willing to expend. So, for the vast majority of purchases, these internal representations were enough for us. They acted as a proxy for information that lay beyond our grasp.

But the world has changed. For almost any purchase category you can think of, there exists reliable, objective information that is easy to access and filter. We no longer are restricted to internal brand activations (relative values based on our own past experiences and beliefs). Now, with a few quick searches, we can access objective information, often based on the experiences of others. In their book of the same name, Itimar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen call these sources “Absolute Value.” For more and more purchases, we turn to external sources because we can. The effort invested is more than compensated for the value returned. In the process, the value of traditional branding is being eroded. This is truer for some product categories than others. The higher the risk or the level of interest, the more the prospect will engage in an external activation. But across all product categories, there has been a significant shift from the internal to the external.

What this means for advertising is that we have to shift our focus from internal spreading activations to external spreading activations. Now, when we retrieve an internal representation of a product or brand, it typically acts as a starting point, not the end point. That starting point is then to be modified or discarded completely depending on the external information we access. The first activated node is our own initial concept of the product, but the subsequent nodes are spread throughout the digitized information landscape.

In an internal spreading activation, the nodes activated and the connections between those nodes are all conducted at a subconscious level. It’s beyond our control. But an external spreading activation is a different beast. It’s a deliberate information search conducted by the prospect. That means that the nodes accessed and the connections between those nodes becomes of critical importance. Advertisers have to understand what those external activation maps look like. They have to be intimately aware of the information nodes accessed and the connections used to get to those nodes. They also have to be familiar with the prospect’s information consumption preferences. At first glance, this seems to be an impossibly complex landscape to navigate. But in practice, we all tend to follow remarkable similar paths when establishing our external activation networks. Search is often the first connector we use. The nodes accessed and the information within those nodes follow predictable patterns for most product categories.

For the advertiser, it comes down to a question of where to most profitably invest your efforts. Traditional advertising was built on the foundation of controlling the internal activation. This was the psychology behind classic treatises such as Ries and Trout’s “Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind.” And, in most cases, that battle was won by whomever could assemble the best collection of smoke and mirrors. Advertising messaging had very little to do with facts and everything to do with persuasion.

But as Simonsen and Rosen point out, the relative position of a brand in a prospect’s mind is becoming less and less relevant to the eventual purchase decision. Many purchases are now determined by what happens in the external activation. Factual, reliable information and easy access to that information becomes critical. Smoke and mirrors are relegated to advertising “noise” in this scenario. The marketer with a deep understanding of how the prospect searches for and determines what the “truth” is about a potential product will be the one who wins. And traditional marketing is becoming less and less important to that prospect.