Yahoo Isn’t Just Grabbing Talent: Here’s What Else Its Acquisitions Have In Common

How Marissa Mayer’s Shopping spree could fuel Yahoo’s interest graph.

Yahoo Isn’t Just Grabbing Talent: Here’s What Else Its Acquisitions Have In Common

Marissa Mayer is on a shopping spree. This week’s announcement that Yahoo will acquire news aggregator Summly marks her sixth startup purchase since taking over as Yahoo’s CEO in July.


Like Mayer’s previous acquisitions, the Summly purchase is most obviously a talent grab. Yahoo is desperate for more talent, and Mayer hasn’t been shy about the need to improve Yahoo’s measly mobile presence. Noting in one of her first quarterly calls that Yahoo had, at one point, more apps than it had developers, she hired 120 new employees with computer science degrees between October and December and cut the number of Yahoo-supported apps from around 60 to a dozen.

When she appointed Adam Cahan to lead Yahoo’s mobile efforts in November, he didn’t take over a department as much as create one. “What we had was all of the different properties that had mobile as an ‘and,’” Cahan told Fast Company in an interview last month. “[Product teams would say] ‘we have all this web development stuff we’re working on, oh, and mobile.’”

But Yahoo’s acquisitions are more than just a random grab bag of mobile engineers. Mayer’s targets share a very specific skillset. To review:

  • Stamped, which Yahoo acquired in October, was a mobile app that kept track of restaurants, books, movies, and anything else users liked.
  •, which Yahoo acquired in January, clipped and shared news articles in a Pinterest-like format.
  • Alike, which Yahoo acquired in February, made restaurant recommendations based on users’ previous preferences.
  • Jybe, which Yahoo acquired in March, recommended movies, books, and restaurants based on data contained in social networks.
  • Summly, the news aggregator Yahoo acquired this week, surfaced news most relevant to each user.

(The sixth acquisition, OnTheAir, was a video chat company.)

Yahoo is building an interest graph–a map of what users are interested in that the company can use to personalize their content. And all of the apps Yahoo has acquired so far help users define their interests and find information that matches them.

Here’s how Cahan articulated the vision in February: “[Yahoo] touches you on all of these daily opportunities: Flickr being a daily photo-taking habit, we also have things like finance and sports and others. How do we bring that together, almost like the Internet ordered for you? [How do we] order more and more of this information for you in a way that is highly personalized and highly relevant?… I do think Yahoo will want to be in market with a centralized kind of experience, but that said, I think it’s also a launching point for many other experiences. For example, for a sports users, the web ordered for them is about the personalization of the teams and athletes they follow.”


He says he’s hoping to build a set of Yahoo experiences unified enough that, when users enter them, they’ll be able to say something like, “That’s so Yahoo!” Knowing not just your search history, but also your location and your preferences across Yahoo’s wide-ranging interest groups, he says, will help surface the best information for you.

But in order to paint your picture based on your interests, Yahoo needs to get to know you first. “When somebody invests time with you and your products,” Cahan explains, “they’re actually creating and changing the voice of the products back to them. They’re identifying the things they like.”

Where better to enter your daily life than the mini-computer you carry around every day? When Yahoo revamped Flickr’s iPhone app, users increased their engagement and number of photos uploaded by 25%. When the company redesigned Mail across platforms, reducing the amount of time needed for email tasks, users responded by giving the app MORE time–about a minute per day extra on average.

It’s a loop: Increasing engagement increases personalization. Increasing personalization increases engagement. But to pull it off, Yahoo needs to focus on defining interests and providing users content that fits theirs perfectly–and that’s the thread that runs through its acquisitions.

[Image: Flickr user Jim]


About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.