Yahoo Acquires Summly: The Death of SEO or A New Life for Yahoo?

In late March news broke that Yahoo! acquired Summly (previously called TrimIt), a news-aggregator app created by 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio, for a whopping $30 million.  This exciting story of the British  wunderkind had the media both cheering and jeering Yahoo!, with mixed analysis ranging from “it’s a publicity stunt to appeal to a younger generation” to “it’s all about mobile” to yes, of course, “it’s the future of search and SEO as we know it might be rendered obsolete.”

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. The acquisition has the potential for game-changing innovations at Yahoo! in terms of mobile and search. Plus, if Yahoo! can harness this technology and talent in an appropriate manner, it holds equally as important implications for search marketers.

Is this the death of SEO as we know it? Unlikely, but it does have the potential to give a new life to Yahoo!, particularly to marketers with a mobile search focus.

What is Summly?

According to Summly’s website: “Summly redefines news for the mobile world with algorithmically generated summaries from hundreds of sources. Innovative gestures, animations and great summaries make reading the news fun: easy to use, easy to scan, easy to read, clear and concise.”

While Summly may have been the brain child of Nick D’Aloisio, it’s no secret that he had a lot of help from SRI, a nonprofit research and development institute based in Silicon Valley.

More information on this can be located on Summly’s technology page, where it says: “Summly came to SRI International with a core concept to solve the information overload problem, which is especially challenging for mobile devices because of their limited screen size… Building on SRI’s expertise in machine learning and natural language processing, the Summly team is creating a new type of content, providing understandable and relevant summaries tailored for mobile devices.”

What Does Yahoo! Want With It?

It’s also no secret that Yahoo! wants to focus on mobile (or, at least CEO Marissa Mayer does), while not forgetting about its deep roots in search or “content discovery.” Mayer talked a LOT about personalization, the integration of social (the social graph) and what she refers to as the Interest Graph in a recent Bloomberg interview. These topics, or what she calls the “fundamental pillars,” are what Mayer thinks may be the foundational elements of future Internet search technology (i.e. the future of search).

So the question is what will Yahoo! do with Summly? The application was yanked from the App-Store the day the news broke and over the last 18 months Yahoo! has been dumping apps left and right, most recently the BlackBerry app.

What’s Next?

While nobody thinks that Yahoo! wants to spend much time developing and maintaining Summly as a mobile app, many are already speculating about what’s next for Summly and Yahoo. We polled some of the SEO and mobile search marketing experts at Covario for their thoughts, particularly as it pertains to the future of search at Yahoo!, as well as John C Abell’s article “The future of search only costs $30 million.”  I’d say our team was cautiously optimistic about the prospects:

“I could see the purchase of Summly as potentially moving towards a new Yahoo! search. Its ability to summarize content would first be used on Yahoo!’s homepage, which is still its biggest money maker, and as a news/Flipboard type app to secure it being the “search engine” for news, as Yahoo’s demographic generally still goes to Yahoo.com for gossip and small news bites. Yahoo could then use Summly towards a ‘Phoenix’ Yahoo! algorithm update if they break off from Bing’s search technology, as they already have an out clause due to underperforming ads. SEO would still be key in how the content is structured and delineated (micro-formats), while it's implied that social and usage signals would be used for both rankings and summary structure.” – Michael Martin, Mobile Strategist
“I question the providence of any relevancy algorithm that is based on a Web page’s content.  While it may be effective now, it will surely lose any effectiveness when webmasters adapt to the algorithm.” – Jeff MacGurn, Vice President of Global Earned Media
“Mr. Abell’s article seems to speculate on using Summly for better data parsing and building better filters for relevant content. Google is already saying/doing this internally, and Google+ and Authorship Markup are going in the same direction as the author speculates about  how Summly would be used. In short, it still follows the mantra of search engines we’ve been seeing for years: Good content, great summarization, and better filters for crap.” – Steve Beatty, Director of SEO
“I think it’s quite a leap to go from maintaining the context of Web content culled from visible text on a page that is rooted in the news writing structure of who, what, when, where, how and why – to serving up equally relevant results from summarized site content. Machines translate; humans interpret. If Summly can bridge that gap, then perhaps contextual relevancy can be maintained.” – P.J. Fusco, Director of SEO

As for my own thoughts, Yahoo! definitely sees mobile as the future of media consumption and discovery, so Summly makes sense to that end. Smart search marketers are looking for new ways to draw readers to their content, be it through SEO or other forms of discovery.  Yahoo! can provide these discovery methods by harnessing Summly both as an aggregator (a la Flipboard), as well as a discovery mechanism – particularly for mobile users. This should pay off for those investing in a mobile content strategy and mobile SEO on the long run.

In Conclusion

It remains to be seen how Yahoo! will use Summly and, more important for Yahoo’s shareholders, how they’ll recoup that investment and monetize the technology.  However, one thing is for sure – Yahoo! continues to make waves and give reasons for marketers, content creators and, more importantly, users in general to give Yahoo! a second look.

Actionable Insight

Marketers should harness these clear signals from Yahoo! and start thinking of their own “mobile-first” strategies. At the same time, publishers can’t afford to ignore the value and opportunities that mobile provides. Yahoo! is not the only Internet media company betting big on mobile.  Startups, search engines and social media alike continue to offer new and exciting ways for consumers to find and share content via mobile. Yahoo!’s acquisition of Summly is just one more reason that marketers need to invest soon and bet big on mobile marketing.