That straightforward question has so far baffled the people who run the company.
I got a taste of the fuzziness when I visited Carol Bartz, then the chief executive, back in 2010. She was funny, profane and articulate, except on the question of what the company is. After five minutes of listening to her I still had no idea. Seventeen years after the company was founded, you still have to wonder whether the frothy trademark Yahoo! should be replaced with Yahoo? to convey the uncertainty of purpose.
Now that question falls to Marissa Mayer, who was named the new chief executive last week. Anybody who has followed tech knows she has remarkable credentials and savvy - she embodied much of Google's intellectual charisma - but her tenure will be a pass/fail test based on answering that single question.
I'm going to take a whack at it and say that Yahoo is a media company, mostly by accident (more on that in a bit). Yes, its headquarters in Silicon Valley are filled with technologists and have the familiar trappings of a digital enterprise - foosball, anyone? - but for most Americans, Yahoo is where they get news.
In business, people will tell you that everything else is secondary to being first. And Yahoo, despite its tattered reputation, is No. 1 in 10 content categories, according to the measurement service comScore, including news, finance, sports, entertainment and real estate. Yahoo reaches more than 75 percent of the total Internet audience in the United States, with 167.2 million unique users in June. On any given day, 30 million or more people stop by. Globally, about 700 million people visit the site in 30 languages every month.
What they get, more often than not, is carefully selected and displayed commodity news drawn from a variety of sources, but they also can read smart proprietary reporting from one of the 300 journalists - that's a huge newsroom these days - who work for Yahoo.
It is worth remembering when people start talking about poor, feckless Yahoo that the company suffers from a severe contextual handicap. No, it is not Google or Facebook, but it isn't nothing, either. Second-quarter earnings announced last week reflected a slide of 4.4 percent from the year before, but the company had $1.22 billion in revenue and earned $226.6 million. Display advertising was actually up, to $534.9 million, compared with $523.5 million from the year before.
So Ms. Mayer may be taking over a stagnating company, but it is not a collapsing one. Yahoo has what all media companies want, which is a large audience. The company just doesn't know what to do with it.
When Ms. Mayer starts poking around under the hood of the news operation, she will find a home page that has the kind of traffic that can melt servers when it points to another site.
The secret sauce of Yahoo's front page is more clicky than sticky: the slide show of news that runs at the top is not very deep, but it is difficult to resist. Editors have real-time analytics on click-through rate and can adjust the presentation on the fly; underperformers are quickly dumped or reconfigured. Yahoo uses a combination of technological and human curators to feed a robust audience. (Lest you think that's easy, compare the home page to that of AOL, another legacy portal. Yahoo smashes AOL flat.)
On Friday, news of the shooting in Aurora, Colo., was mashed up on Yahoo's home page with an article about a Taiwanese teenager who had died after 40 hours of video gaming and a picture of a Burger King employee standing on tubs containing lettuce about to be served to customers. But that was juxtaposed with a thoughtful, original take on why the New York Knicks had not signed Jeremy Lin.
Yahoo did not set out to be in the news business - it ended up there by default. It was delivering useful apps to consumers long before there was an iPad. Early excellence in search and e-mail generated a huge realm of users. Its ability to help consumers use data led to remarkable success in its finance and fantasy sports portals, which generated huge, loyal comment groups.
Eventually, Yahoo began feeding its audience bare headlines on news it bought from The Associated Press. It added pictures and began making other content-sharing agreements, while adding its own journalists over time.
Yahoo Sports was the prototype for what the company hoped would be a broader play in proprietary news. The money from fantasy sports bought must-read bloggers doing timely work in various verticals, deep investigative projects and big-name columnists.
But sports turned out to be the exception. Because Yahoo's journey to being a news site was somewhat inadvertent, there was no comprehensive policy for developing content. Yahoo became a series of editorial fiefs - there are dozens of separate subject areas - all competing for attention from the front page with little cooperation or standardization among them. And when you have that much internal traffic to play with, any harebrained programming idea can look like genius just because it received some love from the giant home page.
Chris Lehmann was hired as a deputy editor (then promoted to managing editor) to bring original voices to Yahoo News through a series of news blogs in 2010. He made a number of hires, but he left in 2011, frustrated by yet another change in strategy.
"News is an activity, a verb, really," Mr. Lehmann, who now works at Bookforum and The Baffler, said, "and we would end up mired in these endless conference calls where you would learn a lot about what buzzwords were gaining currency and very little about how we were going to cover the events of the day."
John Cook, a news blogger for Yahoo who is now at Gawker, suggested that Yahoo's effort to create its own content was more of an effort to pressure providers like The A.P. "They backed into an audience and had no idea what it would take to build a real news operation," he said.
I exchanged a dozen e-mails aimed at setting up a chat with Mickie Rosen, a senior executive in charge of media and commerce, to get Yahoo's take on the matter. But the interview was canceled just before it was supposed to occur.
It is possible, of course, that Ms. Mayer will choose code over content, treating news as just the skin on a technology enterprise. But in that space, Yahoo is not No. 1 in anything. It yielded search to Google, flailed at social media and let its messaging product languish.
Even if Ms. Mayer gets the disparate parts of the content apparatus moving in concert, news presents its own problems. Yahoo has done well in display advertising by creating desktop content that is all things to all people. But the desktop is going away in favor of mobile.
Taking that desktop franchise, a 10-pound bag of stuff if there ever was one, and cramming it into the one-pound bag of mobile space will require difficult choices, which will have to be settled by asking the same question over and over: what is Yahoo?
Copyright 2012 The New York Times News Service