“Ordered Information” is not a paint job

At Davos 2013, CEO Marissa Mayer unveiled her vision for Yahoo’s rebirth, affirming it wants to be:

a feed of information that is ordered, the Web is ordered for you and is also on your mobile phone.

It’s a laudable vision. With the decline of traditional gatekeepers of information, the original directory of the Information Superhighway could conceivably become again an “orderer” of the abundance of information we live in. Yahoo also has an abundance of mobiles apps, on iOS alone: Search, Flickr, Mail, Finance, News, IntoNow, Messenger, TimeTraveler, Axis, MarketDash, Sportacular, Fantasy Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, Cricket and Football, as well as feeds into Siri queries and built-in Weather and Stocks apps.

It would thus appear Yahoo both “has content” and “gets mobile.” Unfortunately, when dealing with information for the past 15 years, Yahoo has been confusing “ordered information” with “content aggregation” and “task completion.” While ordered information is presumably better than unordered information, simple aggregation — and that’s all Yahoo has, for the most part — is still quite low on the online food chain, both for Yahoo’s bottom line as well as utility to its users.

What then for a company like Yahoo — cyclically self-described as a search, media, technology, portal and advertising company — could go wrong in a rebirth process? Let’s take a page from Yahoo! Finance, a property that has long dominated its space against old (Microsoft, AOL) and relatively new (Morningstar, Google) competitors, for it neatly displays the degree of trouble Yahoo is in.

Yahoo! Finance

Is it “ordered”?

Scanning top-to-bottom a page of stock quote for AAPL, there are three disparately located Search departure points [1, 2, 3] all styled differently: [1] “Search Web” is the most emphasized one of the three. And yet it’s for generic search, even though I’m already at a highly specialized finance site.

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[2] “Get Quotes” is finance-specific, but then [3], not a button but a text-link, is named “Finance Search” and yet, inexplicably, takes you to another page with a completely different UI and a generic searchbox with text-links to images, video, shopping, etc., not unlike the giant generic “Search Web” [1] just above it. Baffling for a company that still harbors search aspirations.

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[4] Instead of a single banner ad, there are four small ad-buttons for competing trading tools right next to each other. I’m sure some people click on those, but what a waste of prime real estate for premium monetization.

[5] If you wanted to see the price of the stock you’re currently looking at in the context of Dow and Nasdaq as people would want to do, well, you’re out of luck. It’s to the left, on top the navigation column, above the ads.

[6] Why on earth is it necessary for Yahoo to display a Facebook Like button with running tally on an individual stock quote page? Believing Facebook Connect or Like can somehow be Yahoo’s friend in the long run is self-destructively naive.

[7] It’s a navigation column with a kitchen-sink attitude, one of half a dozen other section tabs on top of the page, likely bewildering for most casual users of the site and not quite comprehensive enough for professional traders.

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[8] You’d think “customize chart” (unlike other text-links, all lower-case) would allow you to customize the small chart in some meaningful way. Click it and you’re taken to, you guessed it, another page with a completely different, barren UI from the 1950s. It allows you to change nothing but the timespan of the chart to either 1 day, 5 days or 1 year. That’s customization for you, one which was available on the original chart itself to begin with, without having to navigate to another page under false pretenses.

[9] There comes the positively Amazon-ian “People viewing {current stock} also viewed:” inanity. People who love/hate AAPL apparently also love/hate/crave Chipotle and MasterCard. Seriously?

[10] I don’t have access to click rates on that “Trade Now” button, obviously, but I’m guessing those who do click are a small minority. Clearly this linkage to brokers is meant to generate significant origination revenue for Yahoo, but all those broker sites also provide roughly equal or better generic financial info. Somebody who trades at Schwab or Fidelity wouldn’t necessarily be wasting time at Yahoo, while trading.

[11] Also, don’t plan on having more than one broker to quickly go to, since you can only have one.

[12] I’m not entirely sure whether people actually compare brokers at Yahoo! Finance, but even if they do, they get to choose from only four pre-selected brokers, presumably paying Yahoo an origination fee.

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[13] Just two articles “featured”? What’s the logic behind featuring random articles here, other than cheap SEO linkage?

[14] One of the two articles “featured” is about RIM’s upcoming BlackBerry 10 phone. I know Eric Jackson has plenty of interesting things to say about AAPL, and does pretty much every single day, but this featured piece has absolutely nothing to do with Apple, the word doesn’t even appear anywhere in the linked article or the accompanying video. It is about RIM, as the title says, a company Apple hasn’t really been competing against for nearly two years now.

[15] (I’m not logged into Finance here but) I’m a proud resident of NYC without a car and yet this is a localized car service ad, from another state. Normally, I’d never see any of these ads, as I use an ad blocker.

[16] A river of news. Really, any text that seems to contain the words “Apple” or “AAPL” can end up here and does. No hierarchy or grouping. The “Filter Headlines” text-link on top takes you to another page with, yes, a completely different, barren UI from the 1950s that allows you to check/uncheck a uneditable list of third party news sources.

[17] Sector/Industry/Sub-Industry categorization of US stocks is an issue for nearly all finance services but, newsflash, Apple dropped “Computer” from its name over 5 years ago. Beyond semantics, this is completely nontrivial for a finance site. Readers shouldn’t be led to believe that nothing more than a small and declining percentage of Apple’s revenue comes from selling “Personal Computers.”

[18] As can be seen in the second column here, Apple’s market cap is 20 times Dell’s. They’re in different leagues and (except for desktops and notebooks) in totally different markets. Apple has stopped worrying about Dell many years ago. Since the title of the section reads “Comparison” (singular), of all Apple’s fierce competitors, Yahoo picked Dell? Furthermore, if you do click the text-link “More Competitors” (plural) you’re taken to another baffling page with random stuff thrown in, but with only a single competitor shown: you guessed it, Dell.

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[19] If the stock you’re investigating is an unfamiliar one, wouldn’t it be useful to see what the company does right on top? The “Business Summary” that describes what Apple does is way down. If you were in Wall Street looking for AAPL, it’d be across the river in Jersey City.

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[20] “Penny Stocks.” That cheesy ad pretty much says it all.

[21] Live by 3-column layouts, die by trailing, unbalanced empty space.

[22] “Sponsored Links”? Be respectful of the user, just call them “Ads,” especially if you are an advertising company. If you’re ashamed of carrying advertising detritus at the very bottom of your site, 50 feet below sea level, maybe it’s time to rethink the longer prospects of revenue generation at Yahoo! Finance beyond penny stocks and car mechanics?

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[23] The long list of data feeders to Yahoo is telling. Yahoo! Finance is obviously an aggregator and not a smart or a handsome one at that. Yahoo doesn’t generate all this stuff, you might say, companies that provide the data feeds to Yahoo do. For a company that wants to “order the information,” that is the problem, isn’t it?

A problem deeper than UI

In the latest quarter earnings call Marissa Mayer gave further indication of how this “ordered information” vision might be deployed:

Overall in search, it’s a key area of investment for us. We need to invest in a lot of interface improvements. All of the innovations in search are going to happen at the user interface level moving forward and we need to invest in those features both on the desktop and on mobile and I think both ultimately will be key plays for us.

If Yahoo wants simply to be the data provider to gatekeepers like Apple, Facebook and Google, it will be problematic since Yahoo is often not the originator of the data flow [23]. General-purpose feed business is not a high-margin opportunity in any case. As the simple analysis above shows when the underlying data layer is decoupled from the UX, especially at the hands of designers insufficiently enthused, the results are mediocre at best. In the long run, it’s difficult to “pretty up” data that you don’t control and derive meaningful profit/benefit from, ask Apple’s Maps team.

And yet, this is Finance, one of Yahoo’s strongest properties, not a minor beta product. It’s enough of an embarrassing UX debacle that I haven’t even mentioned any of the glaring visual design issues at all. No amount of interface pixel-dust will cover up the fundamentally broken opportunity to make financial information actually useful to consumers and semi-professionals, while making money doing it. For the user, it fails the first test: now that I’m presented with all this aggregated information, what do I do with it?

Product design starts right there: What Do I Do With It? Not at picking one of 41 shades of purple. Ordered information is great but hard…repainted information is cheap but insufficient. Here’s hoping Yahoo gets that this time around.

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P.S. I don’t mean to single out Yahoo here. All the other financial sites, like Bloomberg or Reuters, also suffer from similar misunderstandings of how to make financial information usable and useful. I picked Yahoo because Marissa Mayer appears to be actively revamping various properties, Yahoo! Finance desperately needs TLC and I’d like to see Yahoo come out of its funk if for no other reason than as a balance to Google’s growing dominance in online services. This is clearly a things-I-noticed in-20-minutes kind of a superficial treatment. I simply scanned one stock quote page of one of the myriad sections at Yahoo! Finance. The list of things-that-went-wrong around the entire site must be enormous. It’s also obvious that Yahoo! Finance wasn’t made with passion, focus and much attention to detail, like a lot of Yahoo properties. That said, providing product design analysis from outside a company, without knowledge of its business goals, is fraught with danger So I’ll have to refrain from offering gratuitous advice to Yahoo on how to fundamentally reformulate their web and mobile Finance presence.

6 thoughts on ““Ordered Information” is not a paint job

  1. Pingback: 29 shades of insult to injury | counternotions

  2. Pingback: Yahoo has a lot to do | Write Seef

  3. It seems to me there is a greenfield of opportunity for ordering information in the Finance page. Focusing mainly on the news flow and related companies – imagine if YF had some data on Apple’s (or anyone else’s) relationships with other companies: suppliers/ supply chain, vendors, resellers/VAR, development partners, and so forth (in addition to competitors). Then, if news stories were truly ordered, you could 1) reduce replicated stories to their “root” story and 2) see how it affects the network. Monsoon in Indonesia? -> disk drive plant there supplies drives to Apple (and Dell, and XYZ). AU Optronics earnings forecast up -> they are a supplier of parts for iPad and iPhone. Supercell releasing a new game? -> prominent moneymaker on the App store.

    It is automating some of what analysts (and many blog sites) do and is very raw but this is the kind of thing the traders and algorithm traders are doing. Producing 100 news stories every minute isn’t going to help anyone. So to do it right would take an investment in machine learning/comprehension and massive scale processing – which I think is table stakes for a company that wants to run with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple.

  4. You might as well rail at late-night TV shows for the cheesy and sometimes fraudulent products that get advertised. The station would LOVE to carry class ads, but Lexus customers don’t watch at 2AM.

    The whole disdain for ads is another thing again. I’m against ‘em as much as anybody, but I recognize that they’re the only way many valuable sites stay in business, so I don’t use ad-blockers—I’d like the sites I care enough to visit, to stay in business.

    So let’s simply understand that big sites that don’t have shopping carts are in the business of giving you a guided tour through the bazaar, noting how nice the silk is on the rug made by his friend Hamoud, how well the pattern on the scarf goes with your wife’s earrings.

    Now maybe Yahoo looks more like a second-hand flea-market and you wouldn’t be caught dead with that faux Keane felt picture on your wall. But, as the joke goes, we’ve already established who you are and we’re just haggling over price. SOMEBODY will be thrilled to have it.

    • Notice, I took pains to say I wouldn’t tell Yahoo what to do. If rumors can be believed, it’s Yahoo that has decided to overhaul Finance, presumption being that there’s something wrong with it already.

    • “a feed of information that is ordered, the Web is ordered for you and is also on your mobile phone.” Yahoo CEO

      Grandiloquence on baseless assumptions opens the door to extremely cynical repartees:

      “…well then, don’t go all uppity on us.
      Know your place in the Grand Scheme of things.
      Either cash in with the best of ‘em…and kowtow to the high yield of your insignificance, or choke dead from your constant runs-in with the banking system…

      But in the end, for our seamless and…tactful…comprehension, let go of the Koranic verses for an encore presentation… Dish them if you will as a very personal ‘en aparté’! “

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