Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, the most powerful person in search was arguably Yahoo’s Srinija Srinivasan. If Yahoo’s was the “gateway” to the web in the way some think Google is today, Srinivasan was the chief gatekeeper. And now after 15 years, she’s leaving Yahoo.
Srinivasan was Yahoo’s “Ontological Yahoo,” among other titles including being a vice president and editor-in-chief. She was Yahoo’s fifth employee, hired in 1995 to help organize Yahoo’s listing service.
That’s all Yahoo was at the time, a listing service. Human editors — “web surfers” as Yahoo called them — organized web sites by category, into what’s known as a directory. It was something that Yahoo cofounders Jerry Yang and David Filo had been doing themselves, with no particular view on how to structure the information. Srinivasan — “Ninj” as she’s known to friends and coworkers — was brought in to provide structure.
Yahoo’s Former Power
Today, as I mentioned, there are some who argue that Google is a giant gatekeeper that can make or break businesses (see The New York Times Algorithm & Why It Needs Government Regulation). But in the latter half of the 1990s, this was the argument made about Yahoo.
In 1998, I wrote an entire special report about Yahoo and the challenges it faced with webmasters complaining that they couldn’t get listed, in which Srinivasan was quoted extensively. It was a hot topic and continued to be so for years. Site owners would get frustrated that submissions sometimes seemed to go into a black hole, never to appear. Or, if they were listed, a Yahoo editor might alter their carefully worded description — which might mean they’d not show up at all, in response to some keyword searches.
Occasionally, there was even talk of regulating Yahoo.
When Humans Edited The Web
Srinivasan oversaw this entire process. Where Google later has its PageRank algorithm and computer “spiders” that automatically crawled billions of pages across the web, Yahoo had Srinivasan and an army of human editors who hand-organized the web.
And it worked. It worked better than any of the other “automated” or “crawler-based” search engines at the time, such as AltaVista, Infoseek, Lycos or Excite. That’s because the ranking algorithms for these crawlers simply didn’t keep up with the number of pages they were including. They gathered more and more “hay,” if you will, without a ranking system that pulled all the needles to the tops of their haystacks.
Yahoo, in contrast, wasn’t about the sheer volume of content. It was about listing the best of the web. That helped it stand well above the other players in popularity, in my belief, because it was well above them in relevancy.
In fact, Yahoo sparked a number of human-based imitators. The Open Directory. LookSmart. Snap. In fact, in 1999, I was even quoted as saying that year was the year the human-powered directories had won. And they had. For the first time, more search engines were “powered” by human results than crawler-based ones, as this good News.com piece from the time explains.
Crawler-Based Search Engines Make Comeback
It was a short-lived win, however. Google lead a resurgence in crawler-based listings. Google’s ranking system gave you the best of both worlds.Yahoo was a card-catalog of the web, letting you effectively search for the right “books” based on what they were titled. Google’s system let you search through all the pages of all the books in the entire library. It was far more comprehensive, plus it still managed to get good stuff to the top of the list.
The directories were doomed and began dying. Today, none of the major search engines out there are powered by human results. The Yahoo Directory still exists, but you have to hunt to find it at Yahoo. Do a search, and there’s not even a reference to some of Yahoo’s directory categories, as there once was.
But make no mistake. While Yahoo’s no longer the search powerhouse it was (see A Search Eulogy For Yahoo and Revisionist History: Bartz Claims Yahoo Was Never A Search Engine), Srinivasan played a huge role in the search story that we take for granted today.
Srinivasan announced her departure, her “graduation” as she calls it, on the official Yahoo blog today. She reflects a bit on how things began and that she’ll be spending her time now chairing the board of SFJAZZ. The post also includes this departure video from her:
All the best, Ninj.
Postscript: Also announced today, another big Yahoo departure. See Tim Mayer, Who Worked For Practically Every Search Engine, Leaves Yahoo.