Hey Yahoo, You’re Optimizing the Wrong Thing

I was visiting my grandparents yesterday, and my grandfather asked for help e-mailing an article to some of his friends. I asked him to show me how he normally writes an e-mail, and taught him the magic of copy and paste (it is amazing if you haven’t seen it before) but I noticed that in the course of sending an e-mail and checking on his inbox, he clicked on this ad three times.

When I asked about it, he didn’t realize he had clicked the ad — he just thought these screens popped up randomly — because he didn’t realize that his hands were shaking on the trackpad.

I’m sure the data says that that’s the optimal place on the screen for the ad. I’m sure tons of people ‘click’ on it. I’m also sure it’s wrong, and it results in a terrible experience.

It’s common sense, but experiences like this are great reminders that data only takes us so far, and creativity and clear thinking are always required to find the best solutions.

Yahoo, please fix this!

26 Comments on “Hey Yahoo, You’re Optimizing the Wrong Thing”

  1. cold climate says:

    I taught a beginners blogging class last year. The amount of UI that was designed to make people click on adverts and spamware was verging on criminal.  As someone who learnt to read on a ZX Spectrum we forget how little most people understand what they are seeing at times, let alone spot the chaff from the wheat.

  2. I think this is an incident of a general problem in web optimization that I’ve been seeing a lot lately. When you optimize on a particular stage of a funnel you get almost all of your growth from people who never progress beyond that point of the funnel. Here yahoo is optimizing on clicks for advertisers hoping it will get their advertisers purchases.

  3. Imrouter says:

    This was the reason i switched form yahoo long time ago and still not easy with their slow and difficult to find links.

  4. Rafi Witten says:

    How do you know that although it results in false positives that ad placement isn’t also maximizing profits (which is surely the design criteria)?

    • Abc says:

      I suspect the author is implying short term profits for erroneous clicks are the wrong thing to be optimising. Instead providing a helpful user experience, seeing your user base grow and therefore your profits grow would be preferable.

      • N. Master says:

        Erroneous clicks do not generally lead to profits. Most ads are CPI, not CPC these days.

        • Hilary Mason says:

          Does the presence of that ad make Yahoo Mail a better e-mail client? No? Then what is it doing there?

          • Guessy McGuessterson says:

            That argument may have been valid when Yahoo was on the lips of every Internetian. Except, what starts on the lips eventually ends up in your mouth, from mouth to stomach, stomach to ass. I think Yahoo is somewhere between ass and toilet right now. 

            Suggestion, AdBlock, or another mail client.

          • Yoav says:

            Yes. It allows Yahoo to pay the engineers and the servers that run the service.

            Based on your logic, we should not have ads anywhere.

  5. Antony Wu says:

    Instead of asking Yahoo! to change, I confess that I use AdBlock, so I don’t see the problem you are pointing at. It speeds up my page load time too. Just my 2c

    P.S. I know I am missing the point that you are trying to make, but it is hard enough to convince big corporation to make change, so AdBlock seems to be the perfect solution.

  6. Dan Voell says:

    The same thing happens when I accidentally click on those stupid stories about Tom Brady with the link bait titles on the Yahoo home page. I know people click on them, but if people want to use your search engine and email, they shouldn’t have to deal with pop culture content. How much is TMZ worth? 

  7. Anonymous says:

    At DataGotham, a speaker quoted the maxim “Big Data requires Big Judgment”, and I think that’s exactly the case here.

    Left to run on its own, an optimization team will find and deploy numerically superior tactics that can nonetheless undermine your strategy, brand, or aesthetic.

    Amusingly, it is data-obsessed Google that has the non-optimized, “irrational” (but nonetheless, commercially correct) homepage that refuses to clutter itself.  I’d imagine there is no A/B test in which the clean version out-performs alternatives on the short-run metrics, which is why it’s taken a Founder’s mandate to keep it pristine.

    Optimization needs judgment, and Yahoo!, as they have in so many other areas over the past decade, lacks it.

  8. Ali Amiri says:

    I think that Data always tell us the truth! but as you said we usually optimize a wrong objective function because may be it’s easier to optimize a wrong objective function or may be we are just too careless. 

    For example in this case, adding a term for angry users (do call migrating users to Gmail/Outlook) to the objective function would change everything after optimization!

  9. W S says:

    Install AdBlock Plus on grandpa’s browser (and any browser you come in contact with).

    Seriously.  It blocks 99% of the ads/mis-clicks like this.

  10. Melinda E says:

    Perfect example of why usability studies are so important to supplement the data.

  11. jivebay says:

    Get him off Yahoo Mail. Yahoo mail shows you a screen of ads and news before ever showing you your mailbox, which is what you sign in for. Yahoo Mail used to require people to pay for spam blocking, otherwise you went without it. Yahoo totally needs to rethink a lot of stuff they have out there.

  12. Bill Dimm says:

    Actually, it’s worse than you realize.  When I am about to click on the “Inbox” link in Yahoo mail, the Seamonkey browser inserts the little “Additional plugins are required to display all the media on this page” strip at the top of the page, which causes the page to shift down just enough so that I end up clicking the ad (that I have NO interest in) instead of the Inbox link.  The delay between when the page starts to display and when the plugin warning appears is just perfect to make an incorrect click happen very frequently.  If the people paying for that ad spot are paying based on click-throughs, they are being robbed.

  13. Mark Hahn says:

    grandpa might do better with a mouse than a trackpad, too.

  14. Jonas says:

    Here’s another recommendation for AdBlock. It really makes these mistakes less common. (And speeds up your browsing as a bonus.)

  15. Lee Wei Yeong says:

    down with yahoo, yay

  16. Tim Johannsen22 says:

    This discussion shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the advertisers behind these ads.  All of the identity protection and credit report ads that are all over Yahoo Mail are subscription businesses who can pay very high CPAs. Those companies are very proficient at backing out effective CPAs from different ad units…even these “crappy ones” that gets seemingly small number of clicks.  Yahoo is not tricking it’s advertisers…rather, it’s advertisers are paying dirt cheap CPMs (I should know – I bought that unit before) and realizing they can stay profitable acquire customers through this channel.
    Is it a crappy UX? Probably.  Does it sense for advertisers, who are Yahoo’s primary customer (for better or worse)? Absolutely.

    • Tim Johannsen22 says:

      sorry for the typos:
      *still profitable” not “stay profitable”
      *”it make sense” not “it sense”

  17. render says:

    It doesnt take data to put an ad next to a button.  Any fool can and will do that.  Yahoo’s approach to ad optimization can simply be described as “click jacking”…They will not fix it because its not broken, its the whole point.

  18. Let me just say today was national cheeseburger day ( celebrated ), or so I heard. By the way, speaking of optimization, I got a nice note from someone at bit.ly … but it turned out to be awk ward. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a pattern. Cheers!

  19. Sulaiman says:

    Usability fail. This is why I’ve moved away from Yahoo mail.

  20. seems like the problem is the sensitivity of your grandfather’s trackpad, not yahoo’s design. 

    the placement of the ad is definitely fine, as well as the click area for compose. remember, it’s an ad-supported service.