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At 20, Yahoo celebrates and looks ahead

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
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Yahoo! co-founders David Filo, left, and Jerry Yang hold up a fish prop in Filo's office in Santa Clara, Calif., March 3, 1997. Yahoo Inc. invested billions of dollars in its Internet search engine during the past six years before realizing it made more sense to entrust the job to an outsider _ something the company's co-founders concluded shortly after they started a Web directory in the mid-1990s. This week's deal with Microsoft closes another chapter in an influential Web pioneer that has seen many of them. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Yahoo! celebrates 20th anniversary

On Monday, March 2, 2015, Nasdaq’s opening bell will ring out, as usual, at 9:30 a.m. ET, except for one big difference: It won’t “ring out” at all.

It will yodel.

The unprecedented signal — Nasdaq has never before altered its bell — is set to kick off a daylong celebration of Yahoo’s 20th birthday designed to honor its 1 billion-plus global users and highlight the Internet giant’s rich history, which in many ways mirrors the history of the Internet itself.

Yahoo was founded in January 1994 by Stanford University electrical-engineering graduate students David Filo and Jerry Yang, who originally called the site “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” Filo and Yang renamed their web directory Yahoo three months later and officially incorporated the company on March 2, 1995.

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Over the next 20 years, Yahoo grew to become one of the largest and most iconic tech companies in the world, enduring in a fiercely competitive, rapidly changing industry even as it faced periods of turmoil.

The #YodelOn festivities will begin Monday morning when Chief Financial Officer Ken Goldman unleashes Yahoo’s signature yodel on the Nasdaq floor, and they will continue throughout the day. (A customized Yahoo Y20 animation will also take over the Nasdaq billboard in New York’s Times Square.)

Online, Yahoo will mark the occasion with a new animated homepage logo and special anniversary countdowns in its digital magazines — Beauty, Food, Health, Makers, Movies, Music, Parenting, Style, Tech, TV and Travel — of the top 20 people, events and innovations of the past two decades.

Yahoo will take the birthday bash offline as well. In San Francisco, purple lighting will illuminate City Hall, and at lunchtime Yahoo employees worldwide will link up online in an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for largest simultaneous yodel. They will be led by Wylie Gustafson, the voice of the original Yahoo yodel.

“Yahoo has been one of the Internet’s most beloved companies for two decades, and I'm honored to be part of its incredible journey today,” said Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. “As we commemorate this significant milestone, we want to thank our more than 1 billion users that keep us inspired every day and our employees around the world that make it all happen. Happy birthday, Yahoo!”

Like many Internet companies, Yahoo began in what amounted to a Bay Area dorm room. Founders Yang and Filo were iconoclastic from the start. Seeking to streamline the site’s name, they selected Yahoo because they relished its “rude, unsophisticated, uncouth” connotations. (Jonathan Swift invented the word in the 1720s to describe the brutish humanoids in “Gulliver’s Travels.”) At the time, Yang and Filo joked that Yahoo stood for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.”

Yahoo’s signature exclamation point was soon added to establish control of the Yahoo trademark; the name had previously been used for knives, canoes and barbecue sauce. (The exclamation point has since been dropped, except in the logo.) Purple came later. According to company lore, it was chosen as the official corporate color when the “notoriously frugal” Filo got a great deal on lavender paint and used it to brighten up a “decrepit” early office.

Initially, Yahoo was a hierarchical directory of existing websites; by the end of 1994, it had already received 1 million hits. The site expanded its offerings throughout the 1990s, adding mail, messaging, hosting, groups, games and search to become one of the Web’s premier portals. On Jan. 3, 2000, at the peak of the dot-com boom, Yahoo stock closed at an all-time high of $118.75 a share.

For Yahoo, the 2000s were a period of continued evolution — and new challenges. After the dot-com bubble burst, Yahoo stock plummeted to an all-time low of $8.11. But the company survived in part by shifting its focus to media. On Aug. 9, 1995, Yahoo posted its first news story, an obituary for Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia, and its journalistic offerings expanded throughout the 2000s to include stories from the Associated Press, Reuters and other news services. In 2005 it launched Yahoo Music and acquired the photo-sharing service Flickr.

After rejecting an acquisition bid from Microsoft in 2008, Yahoo entered a tumultuous era marked by employee layoffs and CEO turnover. In 2012, former Google engineer and executive Marissa Mayer was tapped to lead the company, becoming, at 37, the youngest CEO on the Fortune 500 list. Over the next two years, Mayer killed or rebooted dozens of products. Buoyed by Yang’s wise early investment in Chinese Internet behemoth Alibaba, she snapped up more than 40 startups — including the social-blogging platform Tumblr for $1.1 billion — and hired Katie Couric as the face of Yahoo’s burgeoning original news division. The goal, Mayer has said, is a mobile- and media-centric “transformation” meant to “bring an iconic company back to greatness.”

At 20, Yahoo is a different company than it was in the 1990s. But in many of the most important ways, it remains the same: its scope, its reach, its focus on the user, its puckish spirit. The Internet age is only 20 years old. Yahoo’s challenge now — its opportunity — is to play as much of a part in the next 20 years as it played in the first 20. 

“Twenty years is a big milestone for Yahoo, but the startup energy is still here,” said Filo, who continues to serve as Chief Yahoo. “We are constantly reinventing and working to create better experiences for our users. We have a huge opportunity ahead of us.”