What Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer Did and Did Not Say in Her CES Keynote

1/10/14Follow @jpruth

Where is Yahoo going? Does the company have a killer plan to hush its critics?

Those were the main questions I wanted CEO Marissa Mayer to answer in her first-ever keynote address at International CES.

She took the stage at this week’s big technology trade show in Las Vegas, giving a carefully planned talk on what’s next for Yahoo.

The short version: the company is starting to figure out what to do with some of the acquisitions made under Mayer’s stewardship—yet there are still miles to go before Yahoo sleeps.

Part of the spiel was just elaboration on stuff we already knew. Mobile is a major theme for Yahoo. Further, Mayer called it a massive platform shift for the company.

And some of Yahoo’s recent acquisitions have played heavily to the mobile scene. Since Mayer took over as CEO in 2012, the company has snapped up notable startups such as Stamped, Tumblr, and Summly.

Tumblr’s David Karp sprinted on stage Tuesday to talk about where his crew fits into the mix. Acquired last May, Mayer said New York-bred Tumblr is now also the publishing platform being used by new Yahoo digital magazines announced at CES.

Karp said that as mobile gadgets put creative power in people’s hands, more original content accumulates on Tumblr. He said postings in 2013 from Tumblr’s mobile app tripled. Brands are also using Tumblr more, he said, to create marketing content spread through the social network. “These ads can find a really big, big, big audience,” Karp said.

Tumblr founder David Karp at CES.

Tumblr founder David Karp at CES.

While on stage, he announced that sponsored posts on Tumblr will be powered by Yahoo advertising, adding technology such as gender and geographic targeting under the hood. “This means eliminating the guesswork for marketers seeking to match the right ad to the right user,” Karp said.

Other parts of Yahoo are turning mobile devices to their advantage as well. Mayer noted that Yahoo already has a big hand in many of the things people commonly do on their mobile devices, such as checking news, sending e-mail, and sharing images. As these devices assume a bigger role in our lives, they will learn more about their individual users. Yahoo plans to make such contextual knowledge part of info searches.

To that end, Mayer announced Tuesday that Yahoo acquired Aviate, a Palo Alto, CA-based developer of personalized homescreens for Android phones. “Imagine your phone could deliver the right experience at the right time instead of you having to search for it,” she said. With Aviate’s technology, that could include suggestions on music or map apps when users get their cars, or fitness apps when they arrive at the gym.

For all the bright optimistic talk of Yahoo’s plans, some matters were not addressed head-on. What Mayer did not discuss was the outbreak of malware, recently reported by CNET and others, spread via some Yahoo ads, or the prior Yahoo e-mail outages. Granted, the company previously released statements on such troubles, and every tech company runs into glitches at some point. But CES could have been a chance for Mayer to speak openly on the problems.

Last fall’s redesign of Yahoo Mail also raised a noted amount of confusion and outrage among users, as reported by ZDNet. The revamp stuck in spite of the outcry, though Yahoo did some damage control to clarify how some of the e-mail functions changed.

None of that made it into Mayer’s keynote. Instead, she talked up the SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption activated last Friday for all Yahoo e-mail users. “The SSL protocol applies to ads as well,” she said, “effectively making us the largest secure publisher on the Web.” Mayer said it was part of Yahoo’s broader move to secure information for its users.

What remains unanswered is if the evolutionary changes at Yahoo can lead it back to dominance. Mayer did not hit the CES audience with a lone, signature new technology. Rather, she introduced a multitude of ideas tied to themes of mobility and simplicity.

Photo sharing platform Flickr got a brief mention by Mayer, but not the elaborate treatment showered on some of the newer elements and apps being pushed by Yahoo.

The video hub, called Yahoo Screen, got time in the limelight. Yahoo Screen, also available as a mobile app, collects video from various sources, including cable and broadcast networks, in one place. Yahoo is especially interested in what Adam Cahan, the company’s senior vice president of mobile and emerging products, called “tablet in bed time.” “From around 8 to 11 p.m., tablet usage spikes,” Cahan said, “with 65 percent of users engaging on this device, effectively stretching their usage later and later.”

He also trumpeted the new Yahoo Smart TV platform, which automatically recommends shows based on viewers’ prior choices. “Our personalization services are learning from what you watch,” Cahan said. “They’re helping you find something you’ll enjoy.”

So what else is Yahoo cooking up? Media, from news to Saturday Night Live video clips, is getting a substantial push at the company. Over the last year, Mayer said, Yahoo overhauled its media properties to offer more curated content from TV networks such as ABC, CBS, and NBC.

Back in November, Yahoo announced that news and talk show host Katie Couric would serve as its global news anchor. Couric joined Mayer on stage Tuesday to discuss those plans—and the overwhelming flood of information often seen in the digital era. “At times, accuracy has been a casualty of immediacy,” Couric said. “Linking has too often replaced reporting.”

She believes old-school journalism still has a place, and wants to use Yahoo as a vehicle to bring some of her expertise to news on the Web. “We’re in the process of reimagining how we can take original and curated content and deliver it in a much more thorough and useful way,” Couric said, “particularly on mobile devices.”

Now Yahoo thinks it has a few new ways to help people find information, offering something that fits between headline-driven news sites and the chatty peanut gallery that makes up social media.

A new app, Yahoo News Digest, was demoed onstage by Nick D’Aloisio, a Yahoo product manager. D’Aloisio was the wunderkind behind the Summly app, which doled out news summaries to mobile devices; Yahoo acquired it last March. .

Summly founder Nick D’Aloisio.

Summly founder Nick D’Aloisio.

At CES, D’Aloisio showed how Yahoo News Digest aims to simplify news. “We realized at Summly that people wanted to be in the know,” he said, “but were finding it hard to consume the amount of information required.” Like Summly, the new app from Yahoo dishes out digests of the day’s news for mobile phones. Stories are gathered algorithmically, D’Aloisio said, yet curated by human editors. Each story is produced from multiple sources, he said, presented in units of information he called “atoms.”

Infographics, maps, financial tickers, photos, tweets, and Wikipedia entries could make up such atoms, he said, giving the more context for each story. At the bottom of each story, readers can see the original sources tapped for the stories in the digest.

Creating a magazine-style feel for its homegrown media content is another of Yahoo’s plans. Tech columnist David Pogue came to the stage to launch an all-new Yahoo Tech news section. He said it is geared for the layperson who cannot not follow the inside baseball and jargon of high-end, consumer tech media sites. “Everyone at CES is a gear head,” Pogue said, “but the rest of the country is struggling.”

One of the goals for Yahoo Tech, he said, is to speak in the voice of the average person. That means avoiding such jargon phrases as “form factor” and “price point.” “If you don’t talk like that, why should you write like that?” Pogue asked.

Overall, Mayer’s address was par for the course at CES—a meticulously scripted, relentlessly positive presser with “surprise” celeb appearances. A couple of Saturday Night Live cast members performed a short sketch, and R&B singer John Legend serenaded the crowd at the end. The entertainment played off Yahoo’s desire to become more of a force in the media realm. “At our core, Yahoo is about making the world’s daily habits inspiring and entertaining,” Mayer said.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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  • Norm

    Yahoo doesn’t respect or listen the customer’s comments and they do thing in their own bubble of Marissa Mayer’s,(useless).This is example how the industry or Government is managed in this country.There is now vision or respected customer or taxpayers opinion.Therefore we all know that thiong are gettin worse than we expected,(down the hill).

  • Norm

    Yahoo doesn’t respect or listen the
    customer’s comments and they do things in their own bubble of Marissa Mayer’s,
    (useless).This is example how the industry or Government is managed in this country.
    There is now vision or respect of customer’s or taxpayer’s opinion. Therefore
    we all know that things are getting worse than we expected, (down the hill).All of the consumer’s comment’s in the past have been totally ignored.Another words “my way or the highway”.It’s very sad and it will get worse,the way we are experiencing today’s issues.

  • Strani

    The lack of respect for their users shows in the closure of My Yahoo in Germany and France. I was a user myself so I’m forced to find an alternative ( I picked http://www.start.me should anyone else also need one).