New Yahoo CTO: Standardize Then Personalize

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Raymie Stata, named Thursday as Yahoo chief technology officer, has a tough job ahead of him: Yahoo has experienced flagging user interest of late and although it started as a search company, it has since farmed out that area to Microsoft Bing, repositioning itself as an online content and service provider.

Stata had been the consumer Web portal's chief architect. He replaces former CTO Farzad Nazem, who stepped down in April.

At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York last week, Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz downplayed the importance of search, calling it a commodity. Instead, Yahoo plans to remain relevant by personalizing the user experience around search and its other services, making the experience one that can't be so easily duplicated.

The key to offering personalization is standardizing Yahoo's IT infrastructure, Stata told the IDG News Service in an interview during TechCrunch. While Stata was still chief architect at the time of the interview, he had a clear idea of technological direction of the company, and how a private cloud-based approach could serve Bartz's vision of the infinitely mutable Yahoo Web pages.

The company is about halfway finished on its plan of standardizing its architecture, he explained. Following a road map that it put in place three years ago, the company is organizing its IT operations into four layers: The first layer is the physical, the servers and equipment in the data center. The second layer is infrastructure fabric -- the basic set of software that all Yahoo products will use, such as authentication and application servers.

Stata sees this second layer as the company's "cloud" layer. By abstracting the software infrastructure as a cloud, Yahoo can ensure the reliability of the services that it offers, since resources can be pooled and moved around on an as-needed basis.

The third layer is the specific platforms that the applications run upon -- the Web, mobile phones, iPads and so forth. The fourth and final layer is the applications themselves.

The project of boiling down all of Yahoo's IT assets into a single cloud entity has been a major undertaking, Stata admitted. For instance, serving up a single copy of a Yahoo home page once required drawing from 33 different code bases. As of December 2009, that number has been reduced to one.

Over the long haul, this standardization and separation of duties should make it easy for the company to customize the look and feel, as well as the content chosen, for each individual user. The company can develop novel ways of sussing out what users want, and then applying it across all the company's offerings.

During her talk, Bartz mentioned that the Yahoo front page is already served in a million different variations each day. Every five minutes the page changes, based on one of 32,000 variations, which are generated through content optimization techniques. "We know the things you are interested in, and what you don't like," Bartz said.

Stata said that the next big goal for the company is to bring this level of personalization to individual sections as well, such as pages devoted to sports, technology and others.

The company is putting a lot of effort into refining the algorithms that can automate the process of personalization. Right now, for instance, the company is refining an algorithm that determines which news stories should be placed on the users' home pages.

Right now, editors usually pick the top 10 to 12 stories for each section, usually from a pool of about 40 stories. The editor typically chooses stories based on their potential appeal -- the broader the better.

Over time, Yahoo would like to automate most of this process, using feedback from how well the stories are doing -- based on the number of people reading the stories, the number of comments made about the stories, as well as user preferences. Then, editors, who will always be in this decision loop, can fine-tune the final results.

This standardization will also make it easier for the company to provide content for new platforms and new services. For instance, the Yahoo portals are customized for different countries, depending on the viewing habits of that country. When the iPad was launched, the company was able to quickly spin out a new app, Yahoo Entertainment, using many of the tools already in place. One such tool is Yahoo Query Language (YQL), formerly called Yahoo Pipes, which allows developers to easily route content to new platforms.

Stata qualified Bartz's claim that search is a commodity. It is a commodity in much the same way that microprocessors are a commodity, he said. A new business entering this market would need to invest at least a billion dollars to get into it, so it's not like a commodity market that anyone can enter. And while heavyweights like Intel and AMD refine their processors with each new release, the consumer may only be dimly aware of an overall performance improvement.

Likewise, while the fundamentals of search are pretty mature, much of the work Google and Microsoft are doing now is around innovations we may never recognize, such as the way the search results filter out spam listings. So, in effect, to the user, search seems like a commodity, he said. Yahoo's aim is to augment search with additional services.

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