Thursday, April 17, 2008

Yahoo-Google Ad Deal: Perhaps the Best of All Possible Worlds

In war it's said sometimes that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If business deals are a form of warfare then we're seeing some interesting friendships in Silicon Valley these days. The Wall Street Journal covers an emerging wrinkle in the battle for Yahoo as they march closer to a deal to replace their ad network with ads from Google's more powerful stock of advertisers. WSJ speculates that this will make it harder for regulators to approve other acquisition offers from Microsoft and News Corporation to take over Yahoo - or at least slow down a potential re-upping of a bid from them. That may be the case, but it seems as if step by step Yahoo is navigating to a peaceful conclusion to its current woes - and forming a more healthy revenue picture that could help it to define a more comfortable independent future.

With the USD billion -plus boost it's likely to receive from Google's ad networks for ads displayed on its search pages and other page inventory and a potential pickup of already Google-friendly AOL, we're beginning to see the outlines of a duopoly to counterbalance the strong push of Microsoft and News Corp to dominate online media. In broad terms, think of Google as the search, video, database/API and ad backbone for the commercial Web and Yahoo as the media licensing, aggregation and community backbone. Each of these specific domains will overlap, of course, but in broad terms there's a symbiosis between them that offers each a path to revenue growth and the industry as a whole two distinct partners with two distinct strength sets.

This is probably the way that it should have been a while ago. I don't think that there was ever really a strong rivalry in many ways between Yahoo and Google on the product level. Each has always had their specific strengths, and probably both would have benefited greatly for earlier cooperation of this kind. Google was never going to "do media" as well as Yahoo and Yahoo was never going to "do technology" with quite the intensity and neutrality as Google. But between the two of them they both do online content very well indeed. And between the two of them they will have oodles of page inventory for ads to help them weather tougher economic times with fewer concerns - hopefully a key factor that can appeal to Yahoo shareholders being faced with choices.

More to the point, perhaps, such a duopoly would restore some natural balance to the Web that would enable marketers and publishers to understand who to deal with more effectively. There have been too many players with designs to be a "new number one," too much time wasted on kingmaking and not enough time spent on product development. It still leaves Microsoft plenty of room to focus on new and better platforms for content with mobile operators, auto manufacturers and appliance makers and to try to lock up entertainment deals for those platforms. News Corp may prove to be a stepchild in this situation for the moment, but with MySpace still chugging along healthily I doubt that it will be out of the game in any long-term sense.

The key loser in this deal would seem to be not so much Microsoft as Microsoft's strategy of domination by selling intellectual property. Be it software or content, Microsoft's continuing focus on proprietary consumer goods and services is distinct in many ways from the more open and collaborative assembly of value found in many Web-oriented environments. This may work to Microsoft's advantage where they can provide new and powerful platforms for content, such as in their Sync line of automobile communications technologies, but with ownership of content being more at the mercy of companies that own contexts it tends to be a strategy that conflicts with successful online media. It's that conflict that seems to be at the heart of their failure to convince Yahoo that a marriage would be good. At its heart, after more than a decade of online development, Microsoft still doesn't "get" the Web in some fundamental ways - nor does it seem to want to.

I'd be very happy if this path towards collaborative independence for Yahoo works out the way that it's headed currently. None of the acquisition paths for Yahoo were looking very positive for either Yahoo or the industry as a whole, even if they would have been good portfolio matches for potential stockholders. Here's hoping that we can let this deal fracas die off so that we can get back to focusing on the growth of the Web's greatest strengths - great content and powerful contexts.
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