Mark Norman Francis

Internet Boffin

Content? That's what happens to other people

Published on September 26, 2011.

This article is part of a series in which I reminisce about my time working in the web development team of Yahoo! Europe.

There is a saying “content is king”. This is not something I think the leadership of Yahoo! Europe really understood.

Yahoo is a company that believes SEO comes first and content comes about seventh. Well, in Europe anyway. I hear the US has content.

At one point it felt like we had the “fad of the year” in Europe. A missive, instruction, demand or simple action point would arrive from on high and then suddenly we would all run around trying to satisfy the current craze.

One particular time, someone had probably just noticed an internet sensation called YouTube and we had to up our numbers on video streams. So a bunch of the web development team spent a lot of time adding video players to pages. So many pages. On some of them the video player didn’t even make sense. It was ticking boxes in a spreadsheet, “actioning” without any particular understanding of why we were adding video players.

There was a missing a key ingredient. Namely, video content. For example, after adding the video player to the TV site, you would think there would be some TV clips, trailers, adverts or something for the player to … well, play. Or maybe an injection of new content on the Movies site such as trailers, interviews, behind the scenes clips and so on. But alas, no.

I remember one year seeing some raw numbers during planning where the US incremental content budget was bigger than ours in Europe. I don’t mean that they got more (which is only fair, they did generate more profit) but that their extra budget for that year was bigger than all of the European budget. The total budget for American content was something like twenty times bigger.

This is not really the fault of the European management. If you don’t have the money to spend on unique or interesting content, you’ll probably feel that trying to acquire it in other ways is not worth pursuing. But then again, if you don’t try…

Frankly, I was often amazed when we would actually have good content. But there are a lot of people who seem happy to allow things to be syndicated and republished to get more page views on their sites.

To combat the lack of content, we would spend a lot of time and effort to optimise our pages for search engines (ignoring the common wisdom that one of the best ways to do that is to have great, unique content). The down side was that our bounce rate sky rocketed—more people came to our sites, but would either find what they were looking for immediately and go away satisfied, or more likely would find nothing worthwhile and abandon us. Either way, the next great cause was to find ways to make the sites more “sticky” with users. Normally this would be links, modules, widgets and yes, video players. Not, say, more content worth checking out.

So the times I would hear about “our great content” in all-hands meetings, press articles and interviews, company wide meetings… I would always mentally tack on "here in America."