Yahoo “rewires” itself for social networking

Yahoo Inc. is making good on its promise to rewire itself by opening its data and tools to developers so they can build customized applications.

By adding Facebook-like social networking features to Yahoo’s Web sites, Yahoo hopes to drive more traffic to its sites by allowing people to share information about their interests and activities with friends.

As with Facebook Inc.’s social network, they’ll be able to create a network of connections and send alerts to those people when they upload photos to Flickr or comment on a story at Yahoo News, for example.

The search company is making the data it stores about users — such as their contacts, interests and location — available for developers to build their applications. End users will be able to regulate what information friends and developers can see.

“We’re rolling out a social platform that will draw on the hundreds of millions of connections on Yahoo — everything from random encounters with someone who commented on the same photo as you to deep connections you have with friends who know nearly everything about you,” noted Jay Rossiter, Yahoo’s senior vice president of its Open Strategy in a blog post about today’s announcement.

“By using the social contacts you already have on Yahoo — through Mail, Messenger, Flickr, Finance, Fantasy Sports, etc. — we’ll make those social connections more active and useful.”

The platform will extend to non-Yahoo sites such as Amazon.com and Digg, so that users will be able to see from within Yahoo’s Web sites what their friends have been doing elsewhere on the Web. And third-party sites will be able to publish user activity back into the Yahoo network, which could help those sites draw more visitors.

Allowing developers to make a social connection specific to a Yahoo service can easily lead to the building of unique applications, Rossiter added.

For example, a new app could be built to help users see what their friends are doing on Yahoo, such as entering ratings on Yahoo Movies or submitting an article to Yahoo Buzz.
 
“Basically, we’re letting developers centralize anything you do on the Web as an update on our platform — with your explicit permission, of course,” Rossiter added. “Publishers love this because they get exposed to more visitors whose friends implicitly recommend their content.”

In addition, users can make their Yahoo address book portable by providing it to online merchants for easily shipping a gift to a friend or to get a reminder that it’s time to send a contact an online birthday card, he added.

“Even beyond the address book, we’ve built the whole system with the mentality that any personal data that you put into Yahoo is inherently your data. You own it, and you can give it to anyone or take it anywhere you would like.”

Yahoo also announced that it plans to open some of its services, such as My Yahoo and Yahoo Mail, and its front page for customization with third-party applications.

Developers can start building and publishing new applications into Yahoo today, the company added.

Yahoo officials gave examples of the types of applications it wants developers to build. If a person receives an e-mail telling him it’s a friend’s birthday, an application could allow him to view a friend’s Amazon.com Wish List from within Yahoo Mail. Another program might automatically upload photos received via Yahoo Mail to an online photo account such as Flickr or a non-Yahoo service such as Shutterfly.

Part of the challenge will be getting Yahoo’s users to buy into the idea. At some time in the future, when they log into a Yahoo service, they’ll see the Yahoo Activator, which will present a list of all their contacts pulled from Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Messenger and other services.

They’ll use this to build their connections list and decide who can see what information.

Some industry observers have said that Yahoo’s Open Strategy could be the key to regaining lost users and to recovering after its painful tussle with Microsoft Corp. over a potential acquisition.

As part of its plan, Yahoo is opening all its sites, online services and Web applications to outside developers, and the company is giving users a “social profile” dashboard to unify and manage their Yahoo services.

Rick Turoczy, a blogger at Read Write Web, noted that opening itself to developers could mean the survival of a company that is now among what he called the “old guard of the Web.”

“Clearly, Yahoo is hoping to benefit from the same types of ‘open API’ strategies — outsourcing R&D as it were — that have helped Web 2.0 start-ups thrive in this new open era,” he noted.

“By providing developers with access to the core Yahoo set of functionality and allowing them to mix and match it with the variety of open data sources out there in the wild, things begin to get very interesting.”

Still, he added, it remains to be seen whether the strategy is interesting enough to users for Yahoo to remain a viable Internet entity.

With files from James Niccolai

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