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Microsoft, Yahoo! Ink Search Deal

By Andrew Frank | July 29, 2009 | 0 Comments

July 29, NYC: The author discusses Microsoft/Yahoo! deal on Bloomberg TV


After walking halfway down the aisle with Google in 2008 in a proposed (and then scrapped) search-advertising pact, Yahoo! has inked a 10 year deal in which Microsoft will power Yahoo! search and sell self-service keywords through AdCenter while Yahoo! will become the exclusive worldwide relationship sales force for both companies’ premium search advertisers. The deal is subject to regulatory approval and both parties hope to close in early 2010 if not sooner.

The deal is another chapter in the Yahoo-Microsoft-Google marketplace drama. Various permutations of deals between Yahoo! and Google and Yahoo! and Microsoft have been discussed since Microsoft made a public offer to acquire Yahoo! in 2008. This deal does not include any upfront cash to Yahoo! although, according to Yahoo!, this agreement will provide a benefit to annual GAAP operating income of approximately $500 million and capital expenditure savings of approximately $200 million. Yahoo! also estimates that this agreement will provide a benefit to annual operating cash flow of approximately $275 million.

For Microsoft, the deal is a positive indication that it’s investment in search and launch of Bing in June will pay off. While no solid marketshare numbers have surfaced, Microosft has created positive momentum and it’s that traction that gave Yahoo! the indication it would need to invest heavily in search to remain competitive with Google and Microsoft. By making the pragmatic decision to cede its search technology to Microsoft, the company effects a potential $700 million swing and shows management is able to make tough decisions.

The fine print on the deal continues to be brought into greater relief, but some key questions have been raised:

  1. Yahoo! has put a significant amount of time and energy into its open search strategy, namely BOSS and Search monkey. According to Microsoft, that platform will fall under its umbrella which leaves developers and publishers to question the future of both efforts as well as their desire to work with Microsoft.
  2. While some contend regulatory issues may not be a major hurdle here, Microsoft is a lightning rod for attention from governing bodies in both the U.S. and Europe. Yahoo! and Microsoft represent the two largest consumer web portals in the world, and portals (as well as their toolbars) are starting points for consumer search queries.
  3. How will Yahoo! sell its search deal to affiliates currently powered by Yahoo’s search engine once the deal in done?
  4. How much time, effort and expense will Google put into throwing roadblocks that stall the deal? Google, the jilted groom in a proposed Yahoo! deal in 2008 has, according to reports, shown some anxiety of Microsoft’s newly found search momentum.
  5. Publicly stating it will be going through a brand refresh in 2009, how will Yahoo! position itself with advertisers, consumers and Wall Street having relinquished one of its key product and services pillars.
  6. What about the future of search-display convergence, which was cited as a key principle in Yahoo!’s rejection of earlier overtures from Microsoft? Search-display convergence, which implies the use of search data to better target display ads, is a key battleground for Google as it seeks to extend its advertising business into rich media and beyond.

One question that’s been raised that may be less important is whether the Microsoft-Yahoo! combination will significantly move needle on search share. Microsoft and Yahoo! together handle about 28% of the world’s searches, as compared with Google’s 65%. However, this question overlooks the strategic challenge that this deal represents. By dividing the search advertising market between premium buyers and self-service “long-tail” advertisers, Microsoft achieves a kind of pincer move around Google, challenging it directly on its home turf of self-service AdWords (it’s primary source of revenue) while empowering Yahoo! to block its expansion into the higher end of the market, the premium advertisers, where search and display convergence (along with mobile and social and online video and next-generation television) are important. In other words, this sharpens the distinction between Microsoft’s “technology company” role and Yahoo!’s “media company” role, making it harder for Google to play both against their alliance.

For advertisers, such escalating competition spells opportunity. AdWords users may now find AdCenter to be a more competitive option, especially in categories where Microsoft has focused Bing’s development like travel and retail, while premium brands and agencies may now find Yahoo! to be more capable of supporting brand campaigns with integrated search and search-related targeting capabilities. The fly in that ointment remains the privacy issues that will impede the flow of search data between the two companies. Watch for this issue to escalate in the inevitable challenge from Google.

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