Thoughts on Yahoo and Microsoft Merging

Note: This was actually written on Friday, but I haven’t had a chance to post it til now. I’ve been travelling and access has been an issue. But I just came back from the opening reception at the MediaPost Search Insider Summit and the latest seems to be that the hype of this deal is far ahead of any actual discussions. That said, I think my comments are still valid, because as we’ve learned, things can happen fast in this industry.

Friday, May 4

The big news this morning as I was burning off some calories on the stair climber was the possible acquisition of Yahoo by Microsoft. I was actually in New York when I heard the story break, and one of my meetings today was at the Microsoft New York office, so I thought it would be interesting to ask my contact there what she thought. She indicated that this story has been going on for years now, but apparently they’re going back to the table. As we were chatting in a conference room, someone walked by outside asking somebody else if they had bought Yahoo stock. The media speculation was good news for Yahoo stock, not so for Microsoft.

Obviously, there’s a lot to mull over here. Rumor has it that Steve Ballmer is not taking Google’s DoubleClick scoop lightly. In fact, he’s downright pissed. And he may be preparing to make Terry Semel an offer he can’t refuse. Semel’s played hard to get before, but this time the shotgun marriage just might take.

The obvious question is how the two search properties will combine. In this case, it might be a case of two wrongs not making a right. Yahoo has managed to keep their search share from eroding too badly with Google’s domination, but Microsoft has been sputtering out of the starting gate from day one. The problem is that Yahoo and Live search duplicate each other in many ways, rather than complement each other. The biggest problem with both engines is too much focus on revenue generation and not enough on user experience. They each have their different flavors, but the combined Microhoo (or YahSoft) is in no way a Google killer. In fact, with the turmoil of a merger and the inevitable awkwardness of combining search teams, I see the focus on the user suffering even more. Both engines desperately need a clearly focused user champion to revamp the search experience (ala Google’s power usability troika, Larry, Sergey and Marissa) and this deal just doesn’t produce that.

I think the rationale of the deal has much less to do with search and more to do with a rather petulant online land grab. Yahoo does bring some interesting assets into the Microsoft fold. Microsoft is definitely eyeing the Asian market, and Yahoo has dominates in most of these markets, with the exception of China, and that’s a whole other story. Yahoo also brings a lot of users and online real estate as well, with roughly double Microsoft’s user base. This move looks like a strategy to bolster the front line for a head to head confrontation with Google in the ad serving space. Of course, it could just be the Ballmer has a lot of cash burning a hole in his pocket and everytime he goes to spend it, Google snatches the acquisition away from him. Steve wants to buy a ball he can actually take home.

One really interesting aspect of this is what it will do in the search space. While I really don’t think Yahoo’s search assets are the impetus for the deal, the potential combining of Live Search and Yahoo cleans up the search landscape a bit, and my guess is there will be significant user fall out from this. This will not be good news for the users of these two engines in the short term. But it could be extremely good news for Ask.

I just did an interview with Michael Ferguson, Ask’s usability point person (coming in Search Engine Land next week) and the IAC team are doing some really smart and relatively innovative things with their engine. And they’re probably the least aggressive in jamming ads on the page right now. Diller has provided a big enough bankroll to allow Jim Lanzone and his team to take a long run at capturing marketshare and this just may be the break they need. Based on what I’ve seen, Ask is paying a lot of attention to the user experience, and they may well pick up some converts and some pretty significant marketshare lift because of that. Perhaps Microsoft employees should be eyeing IAC stock. Or perhaps Steve Ballmer is starting to jot them down on his shopping list. After all, Google will probably scoop Yahoo out from underneath him at the last minute anyway!

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