Web Informant #86, 2 October 1997
Why Yahoo has won


I'm not a shopper, I'll be honest with you. There are few things I hate more than dragging myself through some crowded mall parking lot on a weekend afternoon, trying to find some desperately needed possession-to-be. So you would think the Internet is a natural place for me to buy stuff.

After buying a couple of hard-to-find items over the past week, I can say it is getting better to buy things via the net. And in the process of going about my shopping, I began with Yahoo.

The relationship of Yahoo to the rest of the Internet is a lot like the relationship of the island of Manhattan to the rest of the world: if you know the location, you can find a wide selection of stuff in very close quarters. Take the series of lighting stores on the Bowery, or the flower shops in the lower 20s, or the string of Indian restaurants on east Sixth Street. In each case, these stores benefit from being in close proximity to each other and having lots of traffic. They are destinations.

That is exactly what Yahoo is trying to do. And, like the examples cited above, it is working. Sort of. You just have to know how to approach what you are trying to find.

Yahoo has the best content organization system for shopping a category. It works the way I do when I need to get something. In my statistics classes in graduate school (I think), the concept was called mutually exclusive but collectively exhaustive. Meaning that their categories cover everything without (much) duplication.

By listing a bunch of somethings together, I can often go down Yahoo's lists (even the more popular categories aren't too daunting) and find at least one link that is not broken, has the right content, and satisfies my quest. This week, it was a camcorder battery and a new laser printer toner cartridge.

I began my search with a computer supplies catalog to see if I could find my toner supplies there. Well, it was harder going through this catalog than the web! The table of contents was buried about 12 pages in and had the wrong page numbers, the index was buried about 12 pages from the back. When I finally got to the right page, the description for the toner didn't say whether it worked in my particular model or not. Off to Yahoo.

I ended up finding a place for each by using a similar strategy. First, the Yahoo searches -- I used the words "camcorder battery" and "laser toner." I have found that putting in two words is often enough to narrow things to the right category in Yahoo, and if not, you can quickly find the right screen from the results. You could navigate their tree structure, but who has the time?

Choosing the right two words is an art, I'll admit. Just like choosing the right street to do your shopping in the city. It helps to pick words that aren't too common: "printer toner" isn't as good, for example.

But once you get your results you still need to find the right store. In the city, I can go down the street, searching for the physical goods, until I find the right item. In cyberspace, I have to trust that the merchant has set up the site correctly. In both cases, it usually means going from shop to shop, until I drop.

Here is where Yahoo's search engine falls apart, because it only scans the headlines of each site. If someone had listed my brand of camcorder in their Yahoo site description, all the better, and I can search for that brand. But most stores carry lots of brands of batteries and toner cartridges. So I had to go into each one, one by one, and search the store catalog individually.

Most of my catalog searches were pretty miserable. It took several screens to find the right search screen itself, and then several more to find the right part. In some cases, catalogs didn't list my exact camera or printer model number. (Bye, bye.) For both parts, I ended up buying at the place that had a picture, to reassure me that yes, this was gonna fit inside my camcorder/printer. Price? Well, sure, I'll shop for price any day. But I bought the battery at a place that was a bit more expensive, because it had better information about the part.

However, both stores (batterybarn.com, cartridgesusa.com) fell down in the fulfillment area. The battery arrived within a few days, as promised. Toner took a week. Both stores quickly sent me confirmation email about my purchase: but neither message contained much information. Neither confirmation was complete with order number, part description, and a phone number to call with questions. Neither mentioned how the order was paid or if the item even was in stock.

But I digress. This is an essay on Yahoo, not eCommerce. Both parts would have been much more difficult to find if I had started at InfoSeek, say, or Lycos, or Hotbot, all sites that I use for other kinds of searches. These other search sites are page-oriented, which is fine if you want to find a particular page of something, but not fine if you want to examine bunches of stuff.

InfoSeek and Lycos have even changed their splash screens to look more like Yahoo over time. However, the redesign still doesn't present you with categories of sites. And that really is the meat of the matter.

This is why Yahoo is doing well, and as long as they continue to classify new sites and keep their schema exclusive and exhaustive and current (no simple task, to be sure), they will win. And in the meantime, which is your favorite Indian restaurant on East Sixth?

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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