Imagine saying this sentence today, "The most popular index on the World Wide Web is Yahoo." Granted, the terminology comes across as a bit arcane, but the idea that Yahoo was the most popular anything sounds fanciful. But there was a time, decades ago, when Yahoo was so big, it had an exclamation point at the end of its name. When it understood the Internet like no other. And when we might have imagined big, maybe global celebrations to mark its 30 birthday.
Instead, the date, January 30th, 2024 (30 years after Stanford University students Jerry Yang and David Filo founded it), passed almost without notice. The still-relatively young Facebook got far more press for its 20th anniversary on February 4.
That description of Yahoo, circa 1995, comes by way of PC Magazine, which at the time was the biggest and most influential computer magazine in the US. I worked there back then and we were serious: Nothing was better for finding what you wanted on the rapidly expanding World Wide Web. The wild thing is that Yahoo was not a true index. Yes, Yahoo spidered the web like all other early search engines, but there wasn't anything approaching Search Engine Optimization (SEO) that could help you find stuff.
Yahoo's browse tree style of search was more akin to a library's Dewey Decimal system than a powerful knowledge base. Like things were grouped and you could dive down a multitude of rabbit holes to find what you want.
It was never my favorite "search engine," and mostly for that reason. I found Alta Vista much more effective (Sorry, but Google was still years away). There was, though, no denying Yahoo's power and dominance. It was such a big deal that PCMag's parent company Ziff Davis partnered with Yahoo to launch Yahoo! Internet Life. I know, a physical print magazine about the cool stuff on the Internet sounds wrong. It seemed like a brilliant idea at the time, and it did go deeper into the culture of the Internet than any previous publication. The publication lasted through some of Yahoo's best years until the dot-com bubble burst in 2002.
A once mighty brand
Still, I think Yahoo lost its way well before the Internet went through its first big adjustment. I still remember when Yahoo signed a deal in 2000 to let Google power all searches on its site. That's right, one of the first and once most admired Internet search platforms handed a core business to its chief rival. To me, it looked like Yahoo was giving up, but I was wrong, Yahoo never gave up. It was just the first in what would be decades of business maneuvers to grow and build the service. This included building an impressive suite of mobile tools and taking the platform back to its own search engine in 2004.
Yahoo remained busy, sometimes frenetic over the decades, launching new services, forging partnerships, changing leadership like others change shirts, and building a media empire that once swallowed up big names like Katie Couric and The New York Times' David Pogue. It still has a fantastic mail system, and remains the place I go to see live stock market charts. But it does not own a space in my psyche like Google or Apple.
Yahoo's once ever-changing leadership kept trying to steer the company to brighter horizons, most memorably under former Google exec Marissa Mayer (now CEO of Sunshine Contacts), who presided over one of the largest data breaches in tech history.
While that seemed like a mortal wound, Yahoo somehow persisted while giving up a fair amount of its media empire dreams.
After Verizon bought the company for $4.5 billion in 2017, Yahoo renamed its parent company to Altaba, a word with far less gravitas than "Yahoo!"
Yahoo may have lost all its sexiness but it remains an online force. By some measures, the Yahoo.com homepage is the most popular homepage on the Internet. Yahoo populates it with a mix of original content from publications like TechCrunch, and Huffington Post, and syndicated news from other major news sources.
Search still sits at the top of the Yahoo Home page, but it's a distant third in popularity behind Google and Bing, the latter of which has seen a recent surge thanks to the introduction of Bing AI (now CoPilot). It's telling that as Google and Microsoft battle over AI-powered Search, there is no such thing as YahooAI.
It's hard to reconcile the Yahoo of today with that clarion call, "Yahoo!", of the 90s. Most everyone online and off could toodle the three-note yodel. There were billboards with the once iconic logo.
It's a shame because it's not just that Yahoo! was once dominant. Yahoo helped define the original World Wide Web and build a roadmap for search and services that, in some ways, others like Google followed. It's possible we wouldn't have the Internet we have today without Yahoo helping to popularize and spread it in the 90s.
If anyone paused to celebrate or even recognize Yahoo's milestone, I didn't see it. And that's just sad.
Yahoo's trajectory might also be a cautionary tale for the Facebooks (Meta), Googles, and even the TikToks of today. No one is too big to fail or be all but forgotten.
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A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.
Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.