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October 25, 1998

Pioneer Web site gives you reasons to stick around

By Timothy C. Barmann

In the early days of the Web, just about every publisher and media company jumped into cyberspace.

They put up elaborate Web sites and posted electronic versions of their products -- sometimes the same products they sold for real money in the face-to-face world.

In that mad rush, no one was really sure how this crazy model of economics could work, and many predicted this give-away was a short-lived trend. Enjoy it while it lasts, the pundits said.

But so far, the pundits have been wrong. With a few exceptions, the Web remains largely free. And the stuff you can get for free is only getting better.

Yahoo! can help you find Web sites related to particular topics, and it also has plenty of features, such as online chess, to encourage you to stick around the site.
One of the best examples is Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com/), the second most popular site on the Web, after the America Online home page. Yahoo! started out as a search tool that lets you quickly sift through lists of Web sites that Yahoo! employees collect and categorize. It still serves that function today, but Yahoo! has morphed itself into something way beyond a search tool. It's worth spending some time exploring the site, if you haven't done so lately.

I met one of the young co-founders of the company, Jerry Yang, at a conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this month, where he spoke to other technology writers about Yahoo!.

Yang arrived at the hotel where the conference was held with little fanfare. At age 29, Yang is now a billionaire thanks to the soaring value of his Yahoo! stock. But he didn't act the part. There was no entourage of aides. It was just Jerry, wearing a tweed jacket and small wire-rimmed glasses. His youngish-looking face and his average height make him look like a guy you might sit next to on the bus.

Yang stepped up to the registration table virtually unnoticed, gave his name and pinned on his plastic-covered name tag. Finally someone recognized him and he was shown where he was to give his talk.

Jerry Yang
He recounted the story of how he and David Filo, a fellow Stanford University graduate student, started Yahoo! as a collection of their own favorite sites on the Web. The project initially was a diversion from working on their thesis papers, but quickly turned into a full-time obsession.

The partners recognized they had something valuable when they started getting thousands of visits. At first it was called "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web." Later it was "Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web." It was then they realized they needed a better name. They added the exclamation point for good measure.

Yang and Filo share the title of "Chief Yahoo," which actually appears next to their names in the documents the company has filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Yang affectionately refers to Filo as the "Cheap Yahoo."

The folks behind Yahoo! clearly have a sense of humor, and perhaps more importantly, are quick to revise and improve the site.

Early on, Yang and Filo recognized they would have to be more than a simple Web search site to survive. In an interview two years ago with a New Zealand publication, Yang said: "If we just froze everything we have today as a search engine directory, that's. . . clearly something that somebody else can do and put it into an operating system or browser or whatever."

The key, Yang said, was to develop more content and features, and stuff it into their service.

That's exactly what they have done. Now instead of just launching visitors elsewhere on the Web, Yahoo! has gives them a lot of reasons to stick around.

The site has the latest news from a variety of sources, including Reuters and the Associated Press, MSNBC and ZDNet.

One my favorite parts of the site is the financial section which gives you stock quotes, plus all sorts of information that publicly-traded companies must release. There's a section that lists the stock trades by the largest shareholders of companies, which can tell you how much stock an executive of a company has.

(The listing for Yang is actually incorrect. It lists him as having 11,426 shares as of August 31, while he actually had 1,000 times that amount, which was worth about $1.3 billion last week.)

More recently, Yahoo! has added board and card games, on-line auctions and the ability for visitors to set up a "club" where groups can set up discussions for their members.

The games can be fun but they are a great time-waster. You can now play chess, checkers, blackjack and a whole list of other card and board games, and you play against other Yahoo! visitors.

You start out with "$1,000" -- pretend money, of course -- and then you can join in. You do so by selecting tables that have space for an additional player. While you play, you can chat with the other players.

Yahoo! is also following on the success of on-line auction companies such as Onsale.com and eBay.com. Visitors can sign up to sell their stuff, like an old set of golf clubs, or maybe a Beanie Babies collection.

Of course, Yahoo! is still one of the best places to go to find Web sites related to a particular topic.

Incidentally, if you search for Jerry Yang at the Yahoo! site, you'll find a personal Web site that Yang apparently set up while still a student at Stanford. It's a simple site that reveals Yang's interest in -- of all things -- Sumo wrestling.

Yahoo! proved that money can be made at this. For the first time, it turned a profit in the last quarter, primarily through its sale of advertising.

So for the time being and the foreseeable future, it seems as though the services and the content available on the Web will just get better. And the price of it all, once you are online, is great too -- free.


Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.