Monday, May 1, 2006

Yahoo Tech Portal: Straining to Be a New Kind of Destination Content posted an initial review of Yahoo's new Tech portal, a rival for CNET that tries hard to be less techie in attitude and more magazine-like in its metaphor. In his quick take Rafat calls it a "work in progress," which is true enough, though progressing towards what is a little unclear. The first impression of Yahoo! Tech is a site that bristles with ads, accentuated by a central box that slashes up an initial animated ad integrated into the page itself that can be skipped if desired. Replacing it is four equal-sized boxes with attractive graphics and headlines: place your mouse cursor over any one of these and it provides a bigger picture and an explaining subheadline.

This central zone on the home page is all done in Macromedia Flash, so you can't right-click on any of the links to launch it into a new window, but hey, this is supposed to be for non-techies, right? If that's the case, then how come I get a help page when I click on the "add a product" box to the "my saved tech products" box to the right of the features? Oh, the help text says "To save a product to this list, click the Save for Later button on the set of pages related to an individual product or from a search results page, then click on Add to My Saved Products." Where's the "Save for Later" button? Ah, there it is, in little type underneath the rating and price info on a product information page. Hmm, some good ideas for usability, but they need polish that makes it truly non-technical as possible to use.

The site also has a handful of "advisers," including a "Mom" advisor (sic), a "Techie Diva" and a "Working Guy." These are nothing more than weblogs, which seem OK but the editorial style is more like a magazine column than a typical weblog. More to the point, there's no way yet to tell from a product page what one of these advisers has for advice, so it's not clear how much value is there having these integrated into a database product. The product search tool fares a little better, fine-tuning a given query automatically as you select refining criteria from a menu of parameters such as price, vendor and so on. A navigation guide with popular categories size-weighted appears up top on the home page and on pages that you follow from that navigation, providing a useful level of faceted navigation but it positioning seems out of place on the home page. Feature articles are along the lines of "finding the perfect cell phone" and include links to content in PC World magazine as well as links to highly recommended products in the Yahoo! Tech database.

It appears as if the marketing team at Yahoo! set out with some very specific demographics in mind and tried to carve out a product that had content that was an amalgam of CNET and held together with glossy media production values to appeal to a non-technical audience. The result is somewhat disconcerting: the site is clearly oriented towards maximizing the rich data from both professionals and users that underpins a good consumer guide these days but its seems to be at a loss as to how to have the site as a whole hang together as either a publication or a tool or a meaningful combination of both. The editorial content is very disjointed and in general doesn't integrate well with the very competent buyers guides.

It's a step towards Yahoo providing more destination content that has AOL-like appeal for mass audiences and brand advertisers trained by traditional media, but it's a site that needs to focus more on the basics of what it takes to make content appealing to online audiences. Like many of Yahoo's current efforts you can feel them straining to appeal to users in every way they can right out of the box, but it's perhaps best to do so with a bit less noise and a few more pieces in place to keep the appeal focused more clearly on the specific motivations that bring people to a site. Good production values can make a site more visually appealing but they cannot overcome underlying weaknesses in the fundamental concept of a content product.
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