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Many moons ago I had a long conversation with Anna Zornosa, head of Yahoo! Personals. Anna, for those of you who don’t know, was CMO at Knight Ridder Digital until November 2005 where she was in charge of crafting digital strategies. Prior to KRD she was the CEO of Topica and Sr. VP at Women.com. At the time, I thought that Anna definitely had the pedigree, the only question was can she outlast her successors? Months later and several conversations with Yahoo insiders leads me to believe that things have settled down at Y! Personals, even after the recent re-org.

Speaking of the re-org, Y! Personals moved to Jeff Weiner’s Network group from Local Markets and Commerce Division (LMC).

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Susan Mernit, the Product development lead for a Yahoo! Personals. Susan was at Knight-Ridder and started a month after Anna. Susan and I spent an enjoyable hour talking about what’s been going on behind the scenes at Y! Personals for the past two years and what’s in store for the future.

When Susan arrived, the Y! Personals platform had not been touched since 2004. The communication tools were lacking and the overall service felt “kind of empty”, more like classifieds than personals.

Search data storage and system architecture exhibited a lack of flexibility and scalability that had to be addressed before the service could grow.

Susan’s goal was to grow and improve the business and product as well as finding new audiences.

Yahoo Mailbox SortFirst up, a new platform. Planning for the development of the new Y! Personals platform began in late 2005.The goal was an infrastructure which would support a more expressive, richer interactive user experience. Plus, the system needed to be flexible and module enough to enable building for the future.

Yahoo MailboxThis next section is for those of you more interested in the technical details behind the new platform.

Y! Personals is built on top of a completely new system architecture featuring state of the art performance enhancements.

Yahoo Email Alerts The search database was rebuilt. Search is now XML driven, featuring much more flexible data maps. Was using MySql, now on Oracle. Susan’s team spent six months testing seven different database platforms. The improved search system made enabling new search features much faster and easier than the legacy system. The new database systems features *much* faster database calls between databases anda consolidated XML formatting of data.

I was not aware that Y! Personals has had an API all of 2006, but it’s only accessible to affiliates.

The Front End

Susan says the majority of the front end is new, utilizing JSON. One result that users appreciate and advertisers won’t is that revamped Web 2.0 features reduced the number of clicks it takes to do common actions, resulting in fewer pageviews for ads.

New Features

Side-by-side profile comparisons were launched December 2006.

Photos updates: July 2007, featuring 10 photos instead of five. This has greatly increased the number of photos posted. Eight different flavors of photo file formats can be uploaded, up from only one.

The addition of searchable captions has been appreciated by yours truely. Providing a context and description of photos is an efficient way to increase the amount of information that can be gleaned from a profile.

Upcoming Features

New communications tools and interaction capabilities are coming Q4 2007. Expect additional search capabilities and new features through 2008.

I asked Susan about Yahoo! Hack Day, where developers spent a day working on things they would like to see rolled out. (Funny video done for Hack Day, featuring naked puppets, almost NSFW.) Her response was intriguing, saying she supports and endorses the culture of Hack Day and that Yahoo! is committed to hacking and innovation. I can’t help but wonder what features will roll out based on Hack Day.

Given that Yahoo! has such an incredible amount of content, people and services, Susan at the team spend a lot of time thinking a lot about synergies.

Yahoo owns Delicious, Flickr, Yahoo 360, Mash (inf0) and countless other social applications.

The best quote of the interview was Susan saying “How can people have control of their info, how viewed and discovered?” We discussed a few other emerging features that while seemingly no-brainers, Susan swore me to secrecy, so you’ll just have to wait.

Forbes has this to say in article The Algorithm Of Love :

Look for people to match themselves against song lists from Yahoo! Music, perhaps, or photographs from the Yahoo!-owned Flickr photo site. Flickr’s tagging technology, where people mark attractive photos and pool the information, may also be applied to dating.

My take on this at Yahoo Working Towards Richer Profiles. But at what cost to legacy applications like 360? Yahoo did a bold move when they closed Photos and migrated everyone to Flickr. I’m wondering what the effect of new social apps like Mash will be on Yahoo360, most likely cannibalization.

Most embarassing moment of the conversation:

Me: How tightly do you plan on integrating Yahoo Messenger?
Susan: It’s been integrated for over a year.

Susan is also tasked with finding new members for Y! Personals. One would think that with several hundred million members, this would be less of a problem, but when you see the saturation of eHarmony and Match in radio and print, it makes you wonder why Yahoo hasn’t entered the mainstream media market with the same aggressiveness.

Partnership deals

Y! Personals has many different partners, one of the most recent being Beliefnet’s Soulmatch , which I wrote about last year. Yahoo also distributes Beliefnet content through their CMS (content management system).

Note: Here I have taken the liberty of pastebombing various notes from my last conversation with Anna Zornosa.

Whats happening in EU, the deal with Match? What comes around goes around.
Yahoo had a deal with Match in 2000, now they have a partnership in the UK with Match again. Co-branded dating channels in the UK and Germany with global dating giant Match.com.

Other partnerships: Rent.com, Glam.co, Reunion.com.
Yahoo gender balance: m/f even.
Subscriptions: There are some 5.5 million unique monthly visitors on Yahoo! Personals worldwide. 4.5 M US, 1M UK
There will be much more emphasis on partnership deals this year. The strategic principle is to look at each country on specific basis.
Strong partner tools in place.
Factors taken into consideration: what does Yahoo have in place, what does the country have to offer?
France was outsourced.
Relaunched Japan’s Personals last year.

Update: Yahoo Personals has settled with one Robert Anthony over a date-baiting case from last fall.

Thanks to Susan for taking the time to talk to me. It’s not every day that I get to peek behind the curtain of a major dating site.

Subscribe to Susan’s blog to keep up with what’s happening at Yahoo! Personals.