The old Yahoo! billboard in San Francisco. The internet pioneer helped define the quirky, whimsical culture of the web. (David Paul Morris/Getty Images))
One of Silicon Valley’s pioneering internet companies is no more. Yahoo was officially bought by Verizon this week. While the Yahoo brand lives on, it will cease to exist as a stand-alone company.
Yahoo was founded in 1994 by Jerry Yang and David Filo, who met as graduate students at Stanford. That was 23 years ago, which in internet years is more like a century.
“Between 1996 and 2000, Yahoo was it. You hear about Google now, you used to hear about Yahoo,” said Jon Brooks, the 109th employee hired at Yahoo. Today, he edits KQED’s science blog.
Back then, the internet was new to regular folks and it was almost impossible to find websites -- until Yahoo came along.
“Our mission was to classify the entire web,” Brooks said.
Yahoo’s strategy was to compile a list of the world’s most interesting sites. And then organize them into directory of categories, sort of how Craigslist is organized. Unlike Google, which uses computing algorithms to scour the web and assess the quality and relevancy of the sites, Yahoo employed humans to do the task by hand.
The way it worked, people would submit their websites to Yahoo.
“And they would come to the surfers,” Brooks said. “That was on my business card, ‘surfer.’ ”
The web surfer would punch in the url.
“Half the time, it was a web designer or someone’s personal GeoCities page devoted, you know, to anime,” Brooks said.
The surfers, many of them former librarians, would determine whether the site was worthy of being on Yahoo's directory. The process could be long and messy. Brooks remembers week-long fights among surfers about how to categorize, say, medieval art.
“It was human intelligence versus computer intelligence, which sounds absolutely ludicrous today,” Brooks said.
As more websites came online, the directory would get bigger and more confusing, Brooks said. And then Google came along, which basically made Yahoo’s directory irrelevant.
Despite that, Brooks said Yahoo helped establish an enduring web ethos: that anyone should be free to express themselves.
“I mean we had a sexuality category that had accounted for every fetish under the sun, but it wasn’t even considered that we wouldn’t categorize that,” said Brooks.
Yahoo helped define the web culture, said Jennifer Dulski. She was employee 471 at Yahoo. Today she’s the president of Change.org.
“When I think about Yahoo’s place in history, I really think about it as the founding internet company,” Dulski said.
Dulski joined the company in 1999 and helped launch the internet company's TV ads, which always ended with a yodel.
Dulski said that yodel, along with its quirky name, branded Yahoo as a portal to this magical place.
“When you look at the tech companies that exist today, many of them have taken the things Yahoo brought in the first place,” Dulski said.
It set the precedent for quirky names like Google and Snapchat. Plus Yahoo brought that sense of fun -- think office foosball or pingpong tables -- into the workplace, Dulski said.
“I mean the work environment was everything that the Valley has become today,” Dulski said. “It reinvented a way of thinking about corporate culture and the idea that you could have a brand and a company that was not just a business but something that was fun.”
Despite its groundbreaking status, Yahoo was slow to respond to the rise of Google and the shift to mobile. After more than a decade of trying to recapture its status, Yahoo was sold to Verizon for $4.5 billion. Verizon plans to lay off about 2,000 workers at Yahoo and its other sites.