Charles Arthur December 05, 2011
Don't get comfortable... author says Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin always look for new avenues.
Yahoo's demise shows a company should never get too comfortable.
Why would anyone want to buy Yahoo? Such was the question posed by one of my Twitter followers as Thursday's bid (from private equity groups Blackstone and Bain) crossed the wires.
"It's a zombie company," he said.
Indeed, Yahoo has been stumbling about for quite a few years, with nobody quite clear what its purpose is. I asked the recently departed chief executive Carol Bartz precisely that question a year or so ago, and she burbled around the answer.
Really, all Yahoo is there to do is vacuum up spare display advertising while it provides a bit of news, and photography (hello Flickr!) and also be an intermediary for lots of email. Revenues are on a downward slide; Facebook and Twitter are sucking up the display that it used to thrive on.
And, er, that's it. Nobody can quite think of anything that Yahoo has done in the past 10 years that has set the internet alight. All of which should have newspaper and magazine editors pausing and shivering. Display adverts? News? Photography? Isn't that what ... newspapers and magazines do?
Yes, and if you aren't looking to the future and doing it with an eye on the money, then your fate is going to be the same as Yahoo's, where nobody can see a good end to the story; it's MySpace or Bebo, just bigger and with its own email server.
Indeed, the tale of Yahoo is really just the tale of so many news organisations, except this is played out entirely on the internet.
Yahoo's top layer has always been really bad at reading the weather. One of the recurring themes that kept coming up when I was researching my forthcoming book Digital Wars (about Apple, Microsoft and Google's business battles since 1998) was how down the years Yahoo has kept screwing things up. It's like a Shakespearean supporting character, a cross between Falstaff and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: fated to make bad choices.
For example: in 1996, two Stanford PhD students approached Jerry Yang, the co-founder and chief executive, to explain that they had developed a search engine that was even better than Yahoo's own at finding stuff on the web: the most relevant results appeared on the front page.
Yang explained patiently that Yahoo didn't really want a better search engine - it made its money from display ads, so the more pages people went through, the more ads it could sell.
Yes, the PhD students were Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and their search engine would become Google.
Then, as Google was rising in 2000 to 2003, Yahoo kept failing to develop a better ad system, which cost it years and millions of dollars of lost opportunity. Then there was Microsoft's colossal US$44.6 billion cash-and-shares bid in January 2008: at US$31 per share, it was a 62 per cent premium to the company's stock price. But Yahoo had devised some internal forecasts that suggested it would quickly be worth far more. It was wrong, the credit crunch came, and Microsoft walked away.
How many news organisations have been told about the internet repeatedly, but liked the revenues from display ads too much to go more deeply into this new medium? How many haven't been brave enough to test new ways of doing things, to integrate (or even devise) new technologies and ways to connect?
It took the music industry long enough. Finally, some have twigged that apps are (or can be) the new albums. Or that survival is about changing the balance in what they do, away from reissuing CDs of stuff you've sold once on vinyl, to more live tours and interactive paid-for products.
Will the news industry figure it out in time, though, as the hull of Yahoo slowly tips out of the water and the bow starts sliding under the waves? We can all complain - as Yahoo's executives might - that the formula worked really well for a while, and it's just unfortunate that it isn't doing quite so well now. Display ads aren't dead online. They're just a bit poorly. And can't get out of bed. Any more.
Except there's no reason for Yahoo not to have done what Facebook did. Lord knows how many companies have been offered up to Yahoo, only to disappear into its maw and never emerge usefully again. Its only semi-success at getting paid has been through subscriptions to its photo site Flickr (which remains a best in class).
For the rest? Yahoo offers a case study in why you must never get comfortable. It has failed to focus on the money, buoyed by its success in one narrow area.
In contrast, Google has tried and tried to find new avenues for making money: it bought Android, the company, in 2005 (Page and Brin didn't tell their then-chief executive Eric Schmidt). It's tried multiple times with social networks. It's never satisfied.
Yahoo, and Yang, got comfortable. That's what will kill your business.
Digital Wars: Apple, Microsoft, Google and the Battle for the Internet will be published in March 2012 by Kogan Page.
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