The Rise And Fall Of Yahoo Search

If you were around during the early days of the internet – or what many know as the early days of the internet as we know it today – then you probably remember Yahoo Search. For a while, Yahoo was on top of the world; it was more synonymous with the internet, and with combing the internet for worthwhile content, than Google is now.

Today, Yahoo is a shadow of its former self. The website is still live, and you can still use it to search the internet if you like, but the engine is powered by Bing rather than by Yahoo’s proprietary crawler tech, and Yahoo’s market share is pretty dismal as well (despite it still being the third most popular search engine in the world). 

In today’s article, we’d like to take a look at the rise and fall of Yahoo; where it began, the meteoric heights it reached, and the fall it experienced after one monumentally bad decision led to the establishment of one of the biggest companies in the world. Today, we mourn Yahoo as it could have been and celebrate it as it was. Let’s get started!

Yahoo: the beginning

The origins of Yahoo Search can be traced all the way back to the Yahoo Directory, one of the best-known of its kind. Web directories might seem a little quaint now (although there are still plenty of human-edited directories out there), but back then, the internet was small enough that a web directory could easily be maintained.

Yahoo Directory had lots of hand-picked links for everything from finance to news, and Yahoo Search began as a way to filter results in that directory. It wasn’t a true search engine in the way we understand that term now; rather, it was designed specifically to search the directory and nothing more.

Still, given the reliability of Yahoo Directory and the number of sites it was growing to encompass, Yahoo Search quickly gained traction and became a mainstay of the mid-to-late-90s internet. Before there was Google, there was Yahoo; it was the main way that most people found the content they were looking for online.

Yahoo’s ads helped it to gain traction

One of the biggest reasons Yahoo became as popular as it was, besides cornering a market that would quickly become competitive, was its advertising. “Do You Yahoo?” was one of the most-quoted ad phrases of all time; even kids on the playground would repeat this slogan, as well as its infamous accompanying yodel, to one another.

Speaking to the website Fast Company, ex-Yahoo copywriter Tom Parker remembers that the TV ads “made Yahoo an overnight global brand sensation”. He says that he would go to parties in the 90s and people would quote the slogan and yodel at him, such was the ubiquity of the brand.

It might seem a little strange now that a company providing a service as essential as Yahoo’s would even need to advertise, but these were the relatively early days of the internet. There were many people who still didn’t even know exactly what Yahoo did or why it was necessary, so those ads helped to cement Yahoo’s reputation in the minds of many.

The fall: a series of unfortunate events

Of course, Yahoo’s time at the top couldn’t last. Today, we know Google as the dominant search engine in the world, and so Yahoo’s fall from grace was inevitable as soon as you started reading this article. The series of events that led to that fall, though, seem almost tragic in hindsight (at least for the company itself!).

Between 1998 and 2000, Yahoo found its way into the infamous dotcom bubble, which would take entire articles to explain and unpack. Essentially, the bubble burst, and Yahoo lost a lot of its share price during that time, making it significantly less valuable to outside investors.

In 1998, two grad students from the prestigious Stanford University were looking for companies to invest in new search technology they’d invented. If you’ve got a sense for poetic irony, you’ve probably already realised that these two are Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the two co-founders of Google.

Needless to say, Yahoo didn’t license that tech, and instead encouraged Brin and Page to create their own company in a move that would prove instrumental to Yahoo’s own downfall. That wasn’t the only chance Yahoo had to purchase Google; it missed another key opportunity in 2002, and even offered to buy Facebook in 2006, as well as other big companies like YouTube and eBay.

Why did Yahoo Search fail?

When companies succeed, it’s usually down to some kind of alignment of the stars. Google itself has likely navigated a number of pitfalls that could have killed it stone dead during the early days of its inception, and that’s almost certainly true of every other company out there as well.

The truth is that there’s no one silver bullet that led to Yahoo’s downfall. A number of retrospectively bad business decisions – those that may not have looked bad at the time, but gain poignant tragedy in hindsight – combined with bad luck and changing times likely led to Yahoo’s demise. 

Of course, today, Yahoo is technically still operational, but the site isn’t what it used to be. Google absolutely dominates the search engine landscape, and Yahoo stands no real chance of getting anywhere near its heyday. Still, we can remember it for what it was: an instrumental part of the early internet world and a fond memory of when times were simpler.

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