Yahoo aims at customization with new home page

The new version is due out later this year and will sport a cleaner, more open look, CEO Carol Bartz says

When Yahoo rolls out the new version of its Yahoo.com home page later this year, people will be able to customize it to such a degree that the need for the company's My Yahoo personalized home page service will drop significantly.

Yahoo.com will sport a brand-new design that will be much cleaner and more open, which will allow people to access a wide variety of content and services like The New York Times and Facebook from its interface, said Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz on Thursday.

"You won't need My Yahoo as much anymore. You can configure the front page any way you want it," Bartz said during the company's annual shareholders meeting, which was broadcast over the Web.

The home page redesign is such an important project for Yahoo that the company has run more than 140 different tests of it with millions of people, Bartz said.

She invited the shareholders who attended the meeting in person at a hotel in Santa Clara, California, to check out demos of the new home page available on-site.

Yahoo is also working hard to improve another core product, its Yahoo Mail webmail service, which Bartz said "needs to be a lot more modern."

Specifically, she wants Yahoo Mail's interface to be much less cluttered, the performance to be faster and the service in general to make it easier for people to share photos and prioritize messages from friends and family in the inbox.

The meeting was much less contentious than in the previous two years, when board members and top executives fielded sharp questions about the company's strategy and financial performance, which led to tense exchanges.

Bartz, who took over as CEO in January, had a much less antagonistic audience than her predecessors, Jerry Yang and Terry Semel.

For example, a shareholder congratulated her for quieting down the chatter around a possible deal with Microsoft, which the shareholder felt did great damage to Yahoo last year by distracting the company from its business.

In fact, Bartz said very little about Microsoft during the meeting. If the companies ever reach a deal, shareholders and the public will know via a public announcement. In the meantime, the topic won't be broached, she said, reiterating a pledge she has made in the past.

Although Bartz has in previous public appearances addressed Microsoft, the loud speculation that grabbed headlines throughout much of 2008 has definitely quieted down regarding a possible acquisition of Yahoo's search business by the Redmond giant.

Shareholders did ask her some tough questions, such as whether Yahoo's business model is robust enough to close the company's financial gap with rival Google.

She responded that her team is working hard at making Yahoo more efficient but that direct comparisons with Google miss the mark because the companies don't have an identical business focus.

Google is, she said, a "pure search company" while Yahoo has a broader scope beyond the search advertising market that includes display advertising, which allows marketers to promote their brands through banners and other graphical formats.

Thus, judging Yahoo by using Google as the standard "isn't fair for Yahoo and frankly not relevant," Bartz said.

Google, which in fact does generate most of its revenue from search advertising text ads, might take issue with Bartz's characterization of it, since Google is trying to diversify into display advertising and also sells software to businesses.

She also dismissed criticisms about Yahoo's policies toward doing business in countries that censor Internet content and abuse human rights, like China.

"Yahoo wasn't incorporated to fix China," she told a shareholder who also belongs to Amnesty International and asked a question about this topic.

It's unfair to hold Yahoo responsible for mistakes its management made years ago, she said, likely referring to the company's cooperation with investigations from the Chinese government that led to the arrest and imprisonment of dissidents.

"We have worked better, harder, faster than most companies to respect human rights and try to make a difference, but it's not our job to fix the Chinese government. It's that simple," Bartz said.

"We're not going to take on every government in the world as our mandate. That's not the mandate the shareholders give us," she added.

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