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carol bartzThe most reliable question that pops up at Yahoo events is, “What is Yahoo?” The Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco today was no exception, where interviewer John Battelle posed that question to Yahoo chief executive Carol Bartz.

Bartz replied that Yahoo is actually “a very simple story” that can be boiled down to five areas — “content, communications, media, technology, innovation.”

To be honest, when I first heard that, I thought it was little more than a collection of buzzwords. But Bartz pointed out that her answer leaves out some areas where Yahoo has unsuccessfully tried compete in the past — most obviously search, where Yahoo essentially sold off its technological infrastructure and traffic to Microsoft.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that Yahoo is putting a bigger emphasis on its technology side recently. For example, at a press conference in September, a Yahoo executive said the company isn’t just a media organization, but rather an “amazing technology company in the media business.” Bartz acknowledged that when you look at any individual Yahoo website, it may seem like “anybody could put that page together,” but she said there’s a lot of technological sophistication in mixing automation and human curation to select the content on that page. Plus, it takes some pretty serious technology to serve 18 billion ads per day.

Bartz also criticized the question, she called a “trick question” used to suggest that Yahoo executives don’t understand what the company’s core identity. Outside of Silicon Valley and New York, most users know exactly what Yahoo is, she argued.

“I’m never asked that outside of the country or in Iowa,” Bartz said.

Battelle also asked Bartz whether Yahoo is considering a private equity buyout to leave the public market. Bartz responded, “I love being a public company CEO,” then when Battelle pointed out that she hadn’t answered the question, she added, “Oh, I forgot that was the question” and declined to say anything further.

Another hallmark of Yahoo press events, at least with Bartz, is profanity, but today I didn’t count a single “damn”, much less an f-bomb. It’s not clear if that was a deliberate change or if Bartz was just feeling less combative, but it was a surprise.

[photo by Dean Takahashi]

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