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
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
''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
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
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.
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 AT A GLANCE
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 www.Yahoo.com
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