Yahoo’s Carol Bartz takes on Europe, the world

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You couldn’t quite call Carol Bartz’s first European press conference a charm offensive.

“Why do you think I’m here?” Yahoo’s chief executive asked, half-joking, when pressed about whether anyone could have done a better job of leading Yahoo in the 16 months since she joined. “I’ve got plenty of money and was very happy. I don’t need everybody to think I’m an asshole. You think it’s so much fun answering your questions? If I didn’t think there was a good bottle of white wine at the end of it, I probably wouldn’t do it.”

It’s a typically no-nonsense response from Ms Bartz, who was still riding high on much improved first-quarter results last week as she addressed journalists at London’s Tate Modern.

Facing repeated questions about Facebook and whether Yahoo was sufficiently “social” to compete for the display advertising which makes up half its revenues, Ms Bartz admitted that Yahoo was likely to lose its long-held lead in the length of time visitors spend on Yahoo properties.

“We still lead in time spent,” she said. “I don’t think we will by the end of the year. I think Facebook will [overtake] us, as well as Google.”

While Facebook habitually stuns journalists with figures of its scale and reach, Ms Bartz put up an impressive set of Yahoo stats: 100bn emails are sent through Yahoo Mail every month, with a further 500bn spam messages fended off. Its network shows 10bn ads a day, with 160,000 new servers required this year to handle all the traffic.

But while Yahoo has held its own among the largest sites on the web for many years, Ms Bartz warned that the tech world can be fickle.

“I’ve been in the valley since ’83 and I’ve never seen a time when there’s been more tectonic plate shifting with new rivals, new partnerships and crazy stuff going on,” she said, later adding: “A lot of things start one way and end another way. Do not count Yahoo out as relative to interesting and exciting things that happen – remember how dead Apple was for eight years.”

While Yahoo is making nods to incorporating social networks and their features, Ms Bartz believes its users are more interested in consuming than making. Yahoo’s mission is “maniacally going after great content”, she said, particularly “video snacks” – with one example being a new exclusive deal to show Premier League football highlights from the UK.

“People and advertisers are going to Facebook for different reasons,” she said. “Time spent and engagement is certainly something we are interested in. But we have such a big media property that we haven’t even tapped yet. There is plenty of growth and upside for us, in how people manage their lives and get information.”

Pressed again on whether acquisitions of Flickr and Delicious were squandered as Yahoo lags Facebook, she snapped: “We must do something or people wouldn’t come back to us… I resent and reject the fact that you will never see innovation at Yahoo.”

That innovation could come through acquisitions as well as internal development. Although attempts to elicit a comment on Yahoo’s rumoured courtship of Foursquare, the white-hot location-based mobile game, Ms Bartz said localised services and expansion into “untapped” regions such as Eastern Europe could see deal activity.

But for now, Yahoo is playing to its traditional strengths. Its next big advertising campaign will focus on search and the homepage.

The real reason Ms Bartz is here, it seems, is her determination to silence Yahoo’s critics and prove the portal has plenty of life left in it yet.

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