Why I think Marissa Mayer should buy Automattic

September 12, 2012 | 9 comments

WordPressPandoDaily reports that Yahoo! has sold half its stake in Alibaba for $4.5 billion. Their take is that Yahoo! needs one or two big products to turn the company around, and that Marissa Mayer should look to successful large acquisitions like PayPal and YouTube.

I agree. And I can’t think of a better company for them to buy than Automattic, the company behind WordPress.

For every 100 new domains names in the US, 22 of them run WordPress. Around 10% of all websites in the world run WordPress. Those are two amazing statistics.

Automattic’s CEO, Toni Schneider, worked at Yahoo!, and actually created the Yahoo! Developer Network. Meanwhile, the open source WordPress now contains Jetpack, a tool that links each disparate installation to the WordPress.com hub.

Automattic makes around $45m a year, with a valuation of $300-500m. Yahoo! can afford that, with or without the Alibaba transaction.

What would it get, beyond a connection with the platform powering between 10-20% of the web? Well, let’s think about Yahoo!’s origins: a curated index of the web. Not algorithmic search, but edited channels that were the best of the web for any particular topic.

In the mid-2000s, Yahoo! acquired Flickr and Delicious. It no longer has the latter, but it’s started hiring again for the former. Flickr’s a great way to find photos of things or collections of things. (And of course, Delicious was too.)

Yahoo! also has a pretty cool set of semantic API technologies under its belt, for extracting meaning from free text, for example.

By curating content from blogs, Flickr, its Hollywood connections, plus integrating with its APIs and content-specific grouping and filtering tech, it has the potential to be how we find new content online. (Google, of course, is how we find specific content that we know we need, Facebook is how we keep in touch with our friends, and Bing is trying to be Google.)

Is Yahoo! a technology or a media company? It could be neither: a platform company, in the truest sense of the word. It can provide a platform for content creators to find an audience, and for audiences to find interesting content. That’s still, really, missing in 2012.

Going back to WordPress, what if Yahoo! integrated its own ad platform with WordPress, allowing bloggers to make money from their content quickly and easily, while simultaneously finding an audience through curated topical channels? What if it then acquired the OpenPhoto Project (run by another Yahoo! alumnus) and pulled the same trick there, integrating those photos with Flickr and allowing photo owners to pull the Flickr trick of allowing licensing through Getty? Rinse and repeat for video and other partnerships.

Yahoo! could embrace the distributed, creative anarchy of the web while at the same time consolidating an ad presence, declaring once and for all what it actually does, and – I would argue – positioning itself to take over from other, declining media models.

WordPress, meanwhile, would gain from Yahoo!’s resources, assuming the Automattic team and the WordPress open source community retained control. And an unconstrained Matt Mullenweg would make both companies fly.

WordPress Multi User and ad hoc communities

May 30, 2009 | 4 comments

The emerging news out of WordCamp 2009 in San Francisco is that WordPress and its Multi User cousin are to merge into one product (further discussion). This makes a ton of sense, and makes it even easier to create a community of blogs. I’m looking forward to this – I could keep my main blog at benwerd.com focused on technology, as it is now, but start a separate blog about my hometown at oxford.benwerd.com, using the same installation. Not a bad deal.

Of course, Automattic also own Andy Peatling’s BuddyPress, which is fast becoming a solid competitor in the open source social networking market. I’ve seen people have some installation difficulties with it (it’s apparently been simplified to a 13 step process), so it would make some sense to include it as an optional piece of functionality out of the box. But most importantly, I think there’s a change in progress, illustrated by the Google Wave announcement yesterday but not represented in this announcement.

Communities are forming around users, not users around communities.

In the web application model we’ve been using for the last fifteen years or so, you would install a piece of facilitative software in order to create a web community. That might be forum software or Microsoft Sharepoint depending on needs and context, but they’re both centralized communities. The user visits them to log in and participate; users swarm around a single community access point.

However, consider Skype. It’s not a web tool, but it’s often considered to be one of the new breed of applications. When you want to share something here, a community is automatically created between users, who can then have text discussions, call each other and share files – not dissimilar activities to those you might find on centralized communities like Sharepoint, but with the following advantages:

  • It’s transient: there’s no need for the community to exist for longer than it has to.
  • There’s no effort involved. Once you’re done with a community, you simply close the communication (but a backup is typically kept, so you can come back and reference the activity).
  • It’s private: it’s very hard to share activity with the wrong people.
  • It’s decentralized: the community is physically hosted between all the involved parties.

Google Wave also shares all these characteristics, and we’re going to see similar functionality crop up in a host of applications over the next year or two. The reason is simple: it’s a better way to communicate communally.

Of course, blogs are usually public entities, and in that sense WordPress Multi User does its job. But it’s tough keeping track of comment discussions, and there’s no elegant way to have a private, communal blog – something that intranet software needs and that tools like Elgg have done very well for years (disclaimer: I co-founded it). But even that sticks to a centralized model, and eventually, those ad hoc, transient communities are going to be everywhere. It’s going to be interesting to see how tools like WordPress evolve to cope.