Yahoo Inc is moving ahead on Thursday with a radical redesign of its home page — the most heavily trafficked site on the Web — making changes that give users a personalized view of the wider Web.
The Internet media giant is under the gun to deliver on year-old promises to transform Yahoo from a network of more or less insular properties into "starting points" that help consumers quickly navigate their way to the rest of the Web.
"We are going to put what matters to you most at your fingertips," said Tapan Bhat, the senior vice president in charge of "front doors" — the main destinations at Yahoo, including Yahoo.com, MyYahoo and the Yahoo toolbar.
The new Yahoo home page features a tab on the left hand column of the page with sophisticated links to the user's 10 or 20 favorite sites. It functions as an alternative to navigation methods like bookmarks, link bars or browser tabs, he said.
In its simplest sense, Yahoo is blending the broadcast, editorially-controlled view that Yahoo.com has long offered with the personalized, self-selected view of information that the company's MyYahoo service has long offered. It mixes things users know they want, with the serendipitous or unexpected.
"For the first time, we are going to marrying those two to take the best of both," Bhat promised.
The changes, which Yahoo is testing on only a small group of users initially, will lead to a full-scale overhaul later. Two years ago, the last such redesign of Yahoo.com took up to six months to fully implement, the Yahoo executive said.
The makeover of Yahoo.com marks the company's 14-year evolution from the Web's pioneering directory of sites to an index of links to a search navigation tool to a complex media destination site.
A spokeswoman said Yahoo planned to invite a random sample of its users amounting to less than 1 percent of audience. The tests will be conducted in Britain, France, India and the United States, Bhat said.
The new home page relies on slick personalization technology that allows users who have signed into their Yahoo account to see when new information arrives not just on Yahoo sites, like e-mail or news, but off-Yahoo on sites such as eBay Inc auctions or Google Inc's Gmail service.
Instead of whisking people to these sites, users can see a preview of the information while staying on the home page, which allows them to quickly navigate across a range of their favorite sites. The Yahoo home page attracts around 100 million U.S. users a month and 300 million worldwide, Bhat said.
Yahoo is relying on new technology it calls the Content Optimization Knowledge Engine to help its computers determine what the most engaging content may be to a specific user, then serve it up based on their prior surfing habits. Relevant ads tied to users' particular interests are delivered as well.
Slowly moving the mountain
Yahoo is moving carefully with this personalized approach in the knowledge that less than 15 percent of its user base subscribe to its existing MyYahoo personalization service.
"It is a leaner look, it is more user friendly," said Caroline Dangson, an analyst with market research firm IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts, who was briefed on the changes.
But Dangson said the collective judgment of IDC researchers is that Yahoo has made a series of very exciting announcements over the past year, but has been slow to deliver on any of its promises to open up and transform how its sites function.
The more than 500 million or so monthly users of Yahoo properties have little if nothing to see of these ambitious plans to date. "These are announcements. But when does this really roll out?" Dangson asks of the new home page design.
And while Yahoo moves carefully so as not to anger its base of hundreds of millions of visitors, many of its biggest rivals have made sweeping changes in their own sites, Dangson said.
These include Microsoft Corp's MSN, Time Warner Inc's AOL, Facebook and News Corp MySpace, everyone it seems, except Google, Dangson said.
Some of those makeovers have frustrated users who prefer "classic" versions of their favorite sites, she said, adding to the caution of Yahoo, which attracts some of the biggest audiences on the Web to Yahoo.com, Yahoo News and Yahoo Mail.
The real test of the success or failure of the Yahoo home page redesign will only come when the company opens up Yahoo.com to let independent developers create their own applications to work on Yahoo.com, Dangson said. That where Google, Facebook and MySpace all are further along, she said.
Separately, in a bid to shore up morale within a company that has been besieged by competition, a tough advertising market and the so far unwonted takeover gestures of Microsoft, Yahoo has introduced a campaign to encourage employees to dress in purple — the company's primary color — at work.