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Do You Yahoo?

35 million daily visitors can't be wrong.

Or can they?

Yahoo is probably the most well known name in cyberspace. The brand stands head and shoulders above all the rest, partially because founder Jerry Yang was smart enough to pick a name that would stick with surfers like glue, and partially because the company has made the most of the opportunities that have presented themselves.

The company was among the first to offer users free web-based e-mail accounts and also among the first to feed the frenzy for personalized sports scores, stock market quotes and free classified advertising. Management was also quick to capitalize on early successes, expanding outside of the United States with a vast network of international sub-directories reaching hundreds of millions in a literal, almost magical, demonstration of the power of the Internet.

From a stockholders point of view it would be hard to quibble with Yahoo's success. The company has made investors a bundle, riding the wave of public enthusiasm for internet stocks. Advertising dollars have filled the company's coffers to the point of overflow.

Yet this success story may rapidly be becoming the least useful web site on the Internet.

Think of it this way.

You're standing in front of a pile of telephone books eighteen stories high. Simple problem really. All you need is a phone number (or in this case a web address). So you reach down towards the bottom of the pile for a book that looks promising and give it a tug. Guess what happens? You get buried alive in an avalanche of fast falling phonebooks.

Which is a cheap way of describing what's wrong with Yahoo.

The hierarchical system which Yahoo uses to categorize the web worked just fine for a couple of years. Breaking the web down into a system of categories and sub categories was a grand idea in theory - a blueprint for a neat little system of expanding folders that would allow surfers to cleanly navigate their way through the directory and off to their destinations with a minimum amount of distraction.

But the reality turned out to be a different matter entirely. No system could not possibly cope with the web's exponential growth rate. The poor sods added categories as fast as they could, day after day, working around the clock in rotating shifts, but still they could not keep up. Categories for web site designers. Categories for games. Categories for Adult Toys. Categories for Physicists. Categories for Government Agencies.

It was obvious that the system had to be changed.

An executive decision was made. No longer would Yahoo employees be required to do the categorizing. The web site owners themselves would be responsible for determining the correct positioning of the web sites in the vast scheme of Yahoo. The results were predictably catastrophic. The web site owners had even less idea where things should go and were understandably disinclined to spend hours of their time looking for the right spot. Web sites wound up in the wrong categories entirely. Categories were made up. Sub categories were made up. It was a rare moment indeed when a web site found itself lounging in exactly the right place - awaiting a steady stream of unconfused visitors.

Unfair? Yeah probably. But the truth nonetheless.

Simply put, the job is too big for anybody to handle. The web is too big. The idea that a directory could ever do an adequate job of sorting through the chaos is absurd. Technology may well one day solve the problem - if search engines can be refined to the point where they can sift through a billion pages in a millisecond and produce the one you want.

For the time being however, it looks as though the problem has begun to solve itself. Thousands of closely focused web sites provide in-depth coverage of narrow topics ranging from African-American culture to molecular biology, making it much easier to find what you need if you know where to look.

The solution to Yahoo's usability problem? There probably isn't one.

Of course, they could always just erase the whole thing and start over.

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