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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Flickrization of Yahoo!

How the founders of a hot young photo-sharing site are helping to change the focus of the search engine giant--and turning its fight with Google into a battle of man vs. machine.

Peer closely and you'll see snaps of the party that guests have already sent in via cell phone. "I look at Flickr with envy," Yang says. "It feels like where the Web is going." What Yang envies is the community of 1.5 million rabidly loyal users Flickr has cultivated and the vast amount of content they've created. Of the 60 million photos uploaded to the site so far, more than 80 percent are public, meaning that anyone can look at them. More than half have been "tagged" with user-created labels, making them searchable. To use Flickr is to belong to the culture of participation sweeping the Web--where you write your own blog, produce your own podcast, and post your personal photos for all to see. If this is where the Web is going, Yang wants to make sure Yahoo gets there first. Indeed, the Flickr purchase helped ignite a larger strategy. Thanks to a new generation of managers like Butterfield and Fake, Yahoo is starting to see how user-generated content, or "social media," is a key weapon in its war against Google. That upstart in neighboring Mountain View may have a better reputation for search, it may dominate online advertising, and it may always win when it comes to machines and math. But Yahoo has 191 million registered users. What would happen if it could form deep, lasting, Flickr-like bonds with them--and get them to apply tags not just to photos, but to the entire Web?

These entrepreneurs are sprinkling their social-media DNA all over the company, in a process some insiders are calling the "Flickrization" of Yahoo. The Flickrizers' most ambitious goal is to turn Web searching itself into a social event--the idea being that you can find what you're looking for faster if you first see pages saved and tagged by people you know and trust. Done well, it could play as the triumph of the humans over Google's cold mechanical approach.

This is an especially attractive idea to Yahoo veterans, since it harks back to the vision Yang and Yahoo co-founder David Filo had in their Stanford University dorm rooms: Categorize the Web and recommend the best sites for its users, using human editors. That vision had to be abandoned when the Web got too large. But this time the users and the editors will be one and the same, there will be enough to tackle the entire Internet--and Yahoo won't have to pay them.

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