Yahoo's search for a social graph

Summary:Earlier this week I posted about Yahoo's missing piece, it's lack of a social networking hub at the center of its people-centric approach to providing Web-based applications and services. Yahoo's attempt at a social networking hub, Yahoo 360, hasn't gotten any traction, and there is a constant flow of rumors about Yahoo and Facebook and more recently News Corp exchanging MySpace for a large chunk of Yahoo.

Earlier this week I posted about Yahoo's missing piece, it's lack of a social networking hub at the center of its people-centric approach to providing Web-based applications and services. Yahoo's attempt at a social networking hub, Yahoo 360, hasn't gotten any traction, and there is a constant flow of rumors about Yahoo and Facebook and more recently News Corp exchanging MySpace for a large chunk of Yahoo.

speiser.jpg

At Supernova 2007, Mike Speiser, vice president of community at Yahoo, was on a panel discussing the social Web and I later talked to him about Facebook and how he plans to fill Yahoo's social networking void. Speiser came to Yahoo last year when it acquired his company Bix, which lets users compete online in beauty, karaoke, or contests.

He views Facebook as an interesting experiment worth looking at, which is an understatement that carries a past history of acquisition talks between the two parties.

"It's premature to declare Facebook a success," Speiser told me. "We are definitely investing [in social networking] inside Yahoo. There are many different ways to solve the problem...it's a challenge for the whole Web. Facebook has one approach." He added that although the atomization of the Web is creating more opportunities and innovation, and bringing many more players into the fray, few will emerge as winners.

Agreed. The question is whether Yahoo will be a winner as a social networking hub or as a set of applications and services that plug into external social networks...or both.

Speiser described search and social networks as dealing with two different problems. Search is more like the index of a book, with keywords with pages references. A social network, like Facebook, is like a table of contents, and more about discovery and easier navigation.

We know who is winning on the search front today, and if Google were to acquire Facebook, we know who would be one of the leading table of contents, at least in terms of user profiles and relationship connections, in this second (Web 2.0) round of the battle.

"We can be a giant table of contents for the Web," Speiser contended. "We intend to be one of the players providing a social graph."

In unpacking those two statements, I'll start with the social graph, a term that boldy surfaced when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced his company's F8 Platform last month. He attributed the power of Facebook to the social graph, which he defined as network of connections and relationships between people on the service.At the launch of the Facebook platform, Zuckerberg said, “[The social graph] is changing the way the world works. As Facebook adds more and more people with more and more connections it continues growing and becomes more useful at a faster rate. We are going to use it spread information through the social graph.”

Speiser's broad take on a social graph, and table of contents, is to "make it so that each user who uses our product improves it for others." That is the ultimate network effect.

Speiser wasn't specific as to how Yahoo would become a giant table of contents and social graph. No product announcement forthcoming. He pointed to Yahoo Messenger as a social network, but its lacks the social graph of content and discovery that flows into services like Facebook and MySpace. Speiser mentioned Yahoo Groups, which has 100 million users, but again it's not a platform for building a viral social graph of relationships starting from an individual profile and integrating external applications as Facebook is doing.

During the panel, Speiser talked about using the billions of metadata bits and lots of parameterization and bucket testing (systematically testing a hypothesis with a random sample of at least 100 users) to improve the user experience and efficiency of Yahoo's sites and page real estate.

He described collaborative filtering--people who like this also like this--as "massively powerful," especially at large scale, where more data breeds better algorithms. "Collaborative filtering and social networking dramatically improve the experience of browsing," Speiser said.

Indeed, Yahoo is well positioned to mathematically leverage the actions of each user to improve Yahoo's services for other users.

But where is the complementary social networking hub, managing the network of connections and relationships between the 500 million people on Yahoo?

Topics: Social Enterprise, Networking

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