(The following is a story of mine running translated right now in Newsweek Japan)
It only took one initial report a little over a week ago about potential merger talks between Microsoft and Yahoo to generate some of the biggest buzz the online industry has seen. Even as further stories suggested that the two companies were actually considering a strategic online partnership, interest was still intense because of one word: Google.
The search engine company has competed online with Yahoo and Microsoft and thrashed them both, becoming the premier destination for finding information and delivering ads. And so Yahoo and Microsoft hope that somehow the combination of the former’s audience – the top ranking web destination according to site ranking service Alexa.com, with visits from more than 25 percent of all global Internet users – and the latter’s technology leadership might let them compete more effectively.
Were this any other industry, the combined forces would be powerful: almost $51 billion in 2006 revenue and well over 80,000 employees. However, on the Internet, size isn’t enough. Customers must identify a company and its site as the preferred spot to get something done, whether to keep in contact with friends, share video, get news, or look for some piece of information. Lack that connection with people, and your business is bound for bad times. Microsoft and Yahoo is just one example in the online industry of how companies are trying to use alliances to gain a spot in the hearts of customers – though it’s not clear that the approach will often work.
Finding examples of corporations that are using acquisitions for greater customer contact is easy. For example, Yahoo bought the popular photo sharing site Flickr (recently closing its own service, Yahoo Photos, because so few people used it). News Corp acquired personal networking destination MySpace as part of Fox Interactive Media, the Internet division the company created in 2005. “That’s working out quite well,” says a top venture capitalist Todd Dagres of Spark Capital. “MySpace already had presence in the online world that Fox didn’t.”
The difference between these acquisitions and a possible Microsoft-Yahoo marriage is that they were targeted at popular but still niche properties that had enthusiastic customer bases. Amalgamating more broadly based companies, however, is too unfocused. Unless companies can catch the eye of the public, they will remain stuck where they are as their competitors blow past them.
Google is a danger to Microsoft and Yahoo because it competes with them in the vital areas of search engine services and online advertising, being far more successful at both. According to NielsenNetRatings, Google’s share of U.S. searches in March was 53.7 percent, while Yahoo had 21.8 percent, and Microsoft, 10.1 percent. So Google brings more people in who want information.
Then it delivers small ads whose content matches the search terms that users choose. The result is advertisements that people often actually want to read – and many advertisers willing to pay lots of money to Google. According to Karsten Weide, program director of digital media and entertainment at market researcher IDC, Yahoo was the online advertising leader until 2005, when Google blew past them. Last year, according to research firm eMarketer, Yahoo had 15% of U.S. paid search advertising, compared to Google’s 58.7%, and next year it projects Google as taking over three-quarters. “It’s dominant already and growing so fast that it will be difficult for the other players to catch up,” he says.
That spells trouble for the other two. According to Yahoo’s 2006 annual report, 88 percent of the company’s revenue came from advertisers. And while 80 percent of Microsoft’s income is from selling copies of Windows and Office product families, the company sees its economic future elsewhere because the old software lines are now mature businesses that are unlikely to offer high rates of business growth. Before becoming vice president of media development at PodTech.net, Robert Scoble was a Microsoft developer who also wrote a popular blog about the company. He remembers upper management stressing two years ago “that the growth of the company will come from advertising, not from selling another copy of Windows or another copy of Office.”
Yet Microsoft’s online advertising revenues have been flat at about $2.3 billion for the last four years while the industry has grown at an annual rate of over 30 percent, according to Weide. That means the company has faced a constantly declining market share. “I’m at a loss,” he says. “How do you pull zero percent in a growth climate like that? It’s an accomplishment in itself.”
The problem is that bigger is not necessarily better on the Internet. The attitude comes from an old strategy of traditional industries. By acquiring other businesses, a company could create economies of scale, driving down manufacturing and distribution costs and pressuring competitors. On the Internet, though, a small and reasonably funded company can quickly reach millions of consumers: look at MySpace or YouTube.
Microsoft’s difficulty is that it understands selling packaged software, not the media world of online, so it tries to copy someone else’s success. According to Scoble, Microsoft is preoccupied with FOG – fear of Google. “Microsoft has some technologies that are really good, but they’re in clone world right now,” Scoble says. “They’re trying to clone everything that Google is doing.” For example, Microsoft is emphasizing online ad sales and even giving away use of software business applications on its Live.com site. Unfortunately the drive to copy another means that the company remains reactive to the Internet and not developing the new services that will catapult it to the lead among consumers.
Yahoo has a grasp of media, but can’t force how consumers will react. Look at its acquisition of photo sharing service Flickr. That step was necessary because Yahoo’s own photo sharing service, Yahoo Photos, simply never caught on with users. “Now you’re going to bring that together with a behemoth like Microsoft and be able to operate in a nimble and innovate way in an industry that really thrives on rapid [change]?” asks Willan Johnson, formerly a vice president at Yahoo and now general manager of SupplyFrame.com. “Many have speculated that if that deal went through, you’d want to buy Google stock.”
In the view of Kim Caughey, a senior investment analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group, the combined entity would have a hard time hiring the “cool people … to continually create new products to drive people to your web sites and capture eyeballs.” They would find a large-scale company a bad fit. “If they have a really great idea, venture capital will give them money,” she says.
Smaller entrepreneurial divisions might do the trick, but large companies typically don’t have interest in such endeavors because the returns are too small. Scoble found this when he worked at Microsoft and in 2005 urged management to consider purchasing such companies as MySpace, Flickr, or Internet phone service Skype when they were much smaller and less expensive to acquire. “I was telling them to pay attention to something that hadn’t yet sold for $20 million,” he remembers. “I asked, ‘Why aren’t you doing things in this market?’ and the answer was, ‘We’re too busy … running multi-billion dollar businesses.’” By the time large companies see the value, it’s often too late to acquire the truly innovative businesses that are now literally worth billions of dollars.
There still might be sense in a close alliance between Microsoft and Yahoo, even if not for an online consumer market. Caughey says there might be natural synergy for corporate customers – an integration of Microsoft’s commanding presence on desktops with Yahoo’s search technology. The two could become a way to pull together data scattered throughout a large company in the form of word processing documents, spreadsheets, and other files – an area that has caught Google’s eye. Or Yahoo and Microsoft could develop software and systems that would allow others to create the next big thing for consumers. Maybe even Google developers could give the products a test. They probably wouldn’t have to search too hard to find them.
Labels: advertising, Google, Internet, Japan, Microsoft, Newsweek, online, search, software, Yahoo