The neverending quest for order
on the World Wide Web

Published: March 31, 1995

IN THE beginning, there was chaos.

And across the breadth of the great electronic plain called the World Wide Web no light did shine. Two young men walked in darkness and came to know beauty and wonder in places few had seen. It was cool. Very, very cool.

The young men listed the cool places -- a few hundred at first, then a few thousand, then a thousand score. And they brought this list to the people -- a few hundred at first, then a few thousand. Then ten-thousand score. And when they sat back and saw what they'd wrought, they said: YAHOO.

David Filo and Jerry Yang are electrical engineers by training, both doctoral candidates at Stanford University. Yet their divine creation -- YAHOO -- is closest in spirit to the work of Linnaeus, the 18th century botanist whose classification system organized the natural world.

Today, one year after they began their list of cool Internet sites, Filo, 28, and Yang, 26, are premier cartographers of the wired world. Their free service -- a labor of love that was never part of their academic work -- is one of the most popular resources on the Net, tallying about 2 million accesses per day by an estimated 200,000 users around the world. YAHOO (which stands for "Yet Another Hierarchical, Officious Oracle") is currently growing at the rate of 50 percent per month. What was once a little pet project is now a strapping giant that has outgrown Stanford's computer system and forced the duo to set aside their studies while they find it a suitable home.

YAHOO is a filing system roughly analogous to a library's Dewey Decimal system. It categorizes -- and provides links to -- tens of thousands of on- line resources stored on computers around the world. The service is part of the World Wide Web, a rapidly expanding sector of cyberspace that's held together by a system of hypertext links. These links allow users to rapidly hop from one site to another in a non-linear fashion just by pointing and clicking on an interesting word or image.

Order from chaos

The most pressing problem with the Web -- and all of the online world -- has to do with perspective. It's almost impossible to see an overview of what's available on thousands of different sites. Most Net surfers find their favorite sites simply by stumbling across them on the way to somewhere else. Yahoo's outline-style approach begins with a menu of very broad topic headings. Each of those headings leads to more specific levels of topics and, eventually, to the resources themselves. There's also a search feature that allows users to enter topic words and find the proverbial needle in the haystack without going through several levels of menus.

YAHOO is the story of two enterprising and energetic students who happened to be in the right place at exactly the right time. Early last year, when they began compiling their first "hot lists" of sites, the Web was just beginning to grow explosively. Today, both men, soft-spoken and self-effacing, seem mildly amused at all the attention YAHOO has attracted. Sitting in an empty classroom just off the Quad on a recent afternoon, they explained how the service grew from their own personal list of shortcuts into a worldwide resource.

''We'd been playing around with the Web in late '93," says Yang, "and there was never one moment where we stopped and said, 'Hey, the world really needs this!' We thought there was a need for ourselves."

All the hits all the time

''We had our own lists," explains Filo. "But when things got out of hand and grew past 100 entries, it got really hard to find anything. There were a couple of directories out there already, but if we found something neat there was no way we could just add it to them."

''Also, David got sick of me always asking him, 'Where was that cool thing you saw yesterday?' " Yang adds.

The whimsically named service, which went public in late March of last year, resided on Yang's student workstation "Akebono." The search engine resided on Filo's machine, "Konishiki." (The machines, both of which were connected to the Net through the university's network, were named in honor of great Hawaiian sumotori, or sumo wrestlers.) Both engineers hasten to point out that they had no special hardware or resources for YAHOO. Their machines are actually on the low end of what's used by other colleagues in the electrical engineering program. "Our intention was during the day we'd do research and in the background we'd kind of serve these things out," says Yang.

At the outset, YAHOO was receiving about 100 "hits," or accesses a day. Then, spurred entirely by word of mouth (they never listed the service on any of the Net's areas for new features), the hits doubled. And doubled again. And again. Soon Yang and Filo recognized the pattern: Whatever volume of traffic they were getting in a particular month would be doubled the next.

''The first time we realized this had taken on a life of its own was probably about November," says Yang. In the last two months, the pair has set aside academic duties to nurture the project full-time.


There is no clear division of labor at YAHOO. Yang: "We're always going from putting out one fire to the next." Filo: "These days, it's pretty much whoever's awake at the moment. We spend a lot of time in the office." (The two share a trailer/office on the Stanford campus).

YAHOO's overriding editorial philosophy could best be classified as laissez faire. They've allowed the guide to grow with minimal guidance or critical oversight. The direction of growth is determined by whatever new services are submitted by users. The challenge lies in keeping the rapidly growing service useful. If the list of sites is severely pruned to make it more easy to navigate, it loses its comprehensive scope. Conversely, if it's allowed to grow without proper classification, it becomes less useful.

Yang and Filo don't have any mechanism by which to measure traffic to a specific site. But ask them which categories are the most popular and they'll answer without a moment's hesitation: Sex. Television. Movies. Sex. Music. Multimedia. Games. And sex.

While there is a sexuality area on YAHOO, visitors won't find links to any of the Net outposts that dispense erotic graphics. Those links were discontinued not for taste considerations but for practical ones. Site supervisors quickly learned that a listing on YAHOO could cause an upsurge in traffic sufficient to crash the computer running it.

''We'd list a site and the next day it would go down," says Yang. "We view (the erotica sites) as a neat underground activity that has always been underground. Since we are no longer underground, we're pulling all these sites up into the mainstream market with us. And they just die because they can't handle the traffic. People have asked for their sites to be un-listed on YAHOO because of the traffic a link can bring."

As two of the most accessible power-hitters on the Web today (their e-mail addresses are posted to every page of YAHOO) Yang and Filo find themselves in the awkward position of being the first line of support many new users reach: "They seem to find us quickly when they first get on the Net," says Filo. "And if they have questions about anything -- such as how to use their mail -- they ask us. In the beginning we'd pretty much answer everything. Now we're lucky to get to even read it all." Yang says he's often taken aback by the range of customers his service attracts each day: "We'll get mail from religious-right conservatives, radical lesbians, you name it."

Filo and Yang knew since late last fall that YAHOO's days at Stanford were numbered. Since early December, they've actively been looking for a new home. The files themselves are stunningly small -- just 30 megabytes. The problem is the sheer volume of traffic coming over the university's wire in order to reach YAHOO. "The only interaction we had with them was over traffic they were causing on the network," says Sandra Senti, director of networking systems for the university. "It was noticeable. We started talking to them about six months ago to prepare to move to another area."

''Actually, (the university) was very supportive of what we did," says Yang. "I mean -- they didn't kick us off for doing it in the first place."

In January, Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape Communications in Mountain View (and the developer of the two most popular Web-browsing tools) dropped Yang and Filo some e-mail. Andreessen, who developed the original Mosaic browser as a young researcher for the University of Illinois just two years ago, was sympathetic to their growing pains. Within weeks, Yang and Filo began making plans to shift their files over to machines based at Netscape.

Hugh Hempel, director of electronic marketing at Netscape, explains the move -- which is happening right now: "You could call it a cooperative marketing arrangement. A mutually beneficial arrangement for both independent parties. They get visibility from our Web site and we're getting the benefit of their directory service. We figured out pretty quickly that once we pointed to them from our site, it would overrun their connection. So in order to service our customers, we offered them access to our (Internet connection) and worked with them to acquire some additional hardware."

So Yang and Filo, the two accidental superstars of the World Wide Web, find themselves at a curious juncture. YAHOO is no longer a hobby. It's a freshly minted corporation -- on paper. But there's no money coming in and none going out. At the moment, their labor is the endeavor's only asset. The move to Netscape is a temporary situation designed to buy time. Given the overwhelming demand for easy Internet navigation, the future YAHOO could be an independent commercial company or it could be bought out by a larger and more established firm. Yang and Filo say they've received several offers already, but they'd prefer to keep the project independent for the time being.

One thing the partners are dead-set against is charging the end user for the service. Says Yang: "'We've talked about getting some start-up money. And we've talked about going commercial to get some money coming in. But we still view it as a public service to the Net community. I guess that's because we come from the old Internet school." In the event that they do go commercial, they say corporate sponsorship would be the most likely way to avoid charging users for the service.

Careers derailed

If there's a downside to inadvertently creating one of the greatest hits in the short history of the Web, it concerns Yang and Filo's academic careers. Their thesis work has been on hold since February as they meet with lawyers and potential partners and the media. A leave of absence from the university is likely. "Things got to a point where we were talking to so many people and there were so many things to do on the service that we realized we needed to step away in order to allow YAHOO to reach its proper potential," says Yang.

Yang is asked if he saw this coming a year ago -- guiding a whole new cyber-culture on a rocket-ride to who-knows-where.

He shakes his head and the slightest smile crosses his face. "We didn't even see it coming six months ago. Having been part of this really explosive growth -- just looking back at where we've been already -- you have to go 'Whoa. Now that was quite a ride.' "

YAHOO is a free service on the World Wide Web that organizes far-flung Web sites, newsgroups and other resources into easy-to-find topic areas.
Where to find it: with any Web-browsing software, dial
Number of accesses per day: about 2 million.
Number of visitors per day: about 200,000.
Number of sites listed: 32,000.
Number of new sites added each day: about 150.
Rate of growth: 50 percent per month, down from 100 percent per month in 1994.

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