20 October, 2008

Tale of Two Cities in Internet Search

As Yahoo (YHOO) prepares another quarter analysts are looking ever more skeptical about the company's turnaround plans. Job cuts and salary cuts are being covered with increased scrutiny around Yahoo by major media outlets signaling the planning stages are well in the works. As the once proud Internet giant continues falling not so gracefully to its current second fiddle role in Internet Search and Advertising, Google's (GOOG) juggernaut keeps growing.

Yahoo has always had success in branded display advertising, which typically is the focus of big, established corporations and in times of economic slow-downs it is those businesses that are likely to soften their budgets. Yahoo's Finance pages have been decimated as trading houses and banks continue to shutter their doors or merge with each other for survival. Google's strength lies in its search advertising which is available not only to the giant corporations, but millions of small enterprises and basement shops around the world. Got a website? Want advertising? Bid on a few keywords and drive traffic, and that's not even mentioning the massive breadth of "Ads by Gooooooooogle", or AdSense in corporate speak.

Yahoo's next generation Panama Ad system hasn't been to glowing success yet that the company had hoped for and as the stock tumbles into the $12 range, how grand does the $31/share offer from Microsoft (MSFT) earlier this year look now?

Granted Yahoo generated almost $7Billion in Revenue in 2007 and had net profits of over $600Million but it still has not found effective ways to turn its huge user base into a profit generating machine. While the rumors of lay-offs, cuts and salary readjustments are making the rounds within the Yahoo mills, it's toughest competitor just finished blowing the doors off of another highly profitable quarter. Google reported earnings (excluding items) of $4.92/share, beating estimates that had earnings pegged in the $4.70s ranges. Income for the period for Google was $1.35Billion ($4.24/share with special items) and executives at the company made certain to claim, several times, during the conference call that those millions of seemingly little ad clicks are considered as "recession-proof" as advertising can be because of the sophisticated performance and accountability metrics that are available as part of Google's AdWords toolbox.

It seems that as Yahoo continues to harp on the economy as the cause of its slowdowns, mostly in the bread and butter display area, the bigger brother at Google finds ways to be more efficient and more effective. Something has to change within the culture and structure of Yahoo to stop the bleeding. Maybe wholesale cuts are the beginning or maybe they are desperate measures in trying times, but if anything is certain Yahoo needs to put focus back on its user base, and it has to draw up interest within that base to use or try out all the tools in the company's arsenal.

Bottom line: The company is not doing an effective job in convincing its huge pool of Mail and Messenger users to search at Yahoo or to use Yahoo Calendars and other services. Luckily for Yahoo, it is not alone in this problem as Microsoft is unable to drum up any significant interest in its Live Search platform either, standing in a distant 3rd place in search queries.

The heralded premium web portal that once was Yahoo needs to show some Internet savvy at a time when individuals all over the country are zipping up their pockets. While analysts estimate earnings of $0.09/share this quarter and $0.53/share for the full year, and the same $0.53/share for next year, Yahoo's growth story is all but over in the eyes of Wall Street. But it doesn't have to be if Yahoo puts its users first and plans for tighter user experience and integration over the next couple of years.

Yang and company need something to pitch to Investors of Yahoo, and growth plans revealed months earlier that are surely for naught now with the latest economic troubles will not stop the bleeding. To convince the traders these days, the company will need a real surprise in results in addition to job cuts across most if not all its divisions. Get back to a core user focus and have a 2 year strategy ready to restore the luster of the once crowned King of the Internet. As a once proud Yahoo shareholder, if only for nostalgia sake, this company needs a turnaround story the Internet public can get behind.

Disclosure: Author owns GOOG, holds no position in YHOO, MSFT

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