How Yahoo Can Win In Mobile

Yahoo’s (YHOO) mobile business is becoming more important to the company under new CEO Carol Bartz. But what is it working on? For the immediate future, it seems, mostly mobile portal sites and apps for smartphones.

On our post about Yahoo’s mobile business yesterday, a regular commenter that goes by “happyhappy” — who seems to either be a close Yahoo observer or a Yahoo employee — listed four big-picture ideas for Yahoo’s mobile business. We think they’re worth highlighting. Here they are, edited for grammar and clarity, with our comments.

1. Based on our point about Yahoo needing a kick-arse iPhone app for its Fantasy Baseball service: “Identify their properties that are winning online and extend them to mobile. Finance, Sports, Games, Flickr, Answers come to mind.”

This is smart, and the good ones should be separate apps/sites. We will probably never put a generic Yahoo kitchen-sink portal app on our iPhone homepage, but would definitely put the Fantasy Sports app there and use it every day for six months out of the year.

2. “Try harder than anything to fix all other location based/mobile search and monetization initiatives. Google maps isn’t perfect — just close — Yahoo should compete.”

Smart, too. Yahoo has a gigantic traffic pipe on the Web, and boasts an impressive 28 million U.S. monthly unique visitors to its mobile homepage, too. (Via comScore.) Now it must make its other services better. Yahoo Maps is nowhere near as good as Google Maps, but Yahoo has no reason to be behind.

Location is only going to get more important for Web and mobile products. Yahoo should strive to be a leader there.

3. “Extend their ad network to mobile. Buy AdMob?”

Maybe. We’re not in love with Yahoo’s ad network — the way it is now, at least — because it cheapens Yahoo’s own inventory. But if Yahoo could buy a best-of-breed-type mobile ad network like AdMob at a good price, that could potentially pay off. AdMob’s business, measured in ad impressions, has more than doubled year-over-year. And it has taken a lead over other ad networks in serving ads for the iPhone app market.

The mobile Web is still in its infancy, and mobile advertising could eventually either become a really, really big business or not. Bernstein’s Jeff Lindsay predicts mobile advertising will become a $7.2 billion market worldwide by 2012, up from $700 million last year. So, this would definitely be a bet. But maybe not a bad one. (And whether it buys an ad network or not, it’s still important for Yahoo to be able to sell its own mobile ad inventory at high rates.)

4. “If they can turn My Yahoo into a great mobile RSS reader, then have at it. But otherwise cut all initiatives that are trying to replicate portal models from 12 years ago. The front page will not be a ‘starting point’ on handsets ever. The online portal as a starting point was killed by the multitab browser and search, and the mobile portal is the iPhone OS itself. Get over it.”

Yes. Old, “dumb” phones — which most people still use to access the mobile Web — still could probably use a Yahoo-like portal, which includes a better built-in browser by Opera.

But on the iPhone, for instance, there really is no need for a Yahoo kitchen-sink portal app. If Yahoo is going to be successful on the iPhone, it’s going to be through focused apps for its content properties/Web products and maybe a search app like its lightweight Inquisitor. (Though we’re sticking with the Google search built into MobileSafari.)

If Yahoo can build a great My Yahoo mobile RSS “snack” reader, that might work. (Not necessarily using the term RSS, ever, which most people still don’t understand.)

But no one is going to launch a Yahoo app to check GMail, a feature Yahoo is building into its Yahoo Mobile iPhone app, when there is a better Mail app built into the iPhone and an easy way to bookmark GMail to your iPhone’s home screen.

In general, Yahoo must not waste its time replicating phones’ built-in features, but bringing the best Yahoo properties to mobile (and perhaps creating new mobile-specific ones).

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