Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz has been talking a lot over the past two weeks about Yahoo and how it competes against Google and Microsoft. Each time she does, I feel like she’s digging the hole even deeper for Yahoo’s prospects in search. Rather than communicate a clear search strategy — which you’d better have if you’re in a war against Google and Microsoft — she resonates mixed messages that Yahoo can ill afford to send.
Yahoo’s Not A Search Engine
Let’s go back to the end of May, when at the D conference, I was less than enamored with her comments. As I wrote earlier:
Yang got reamed for a poor definition of what Yahoo was at D last year, but Bartz’s definition this year didn’t sound that great:We’re the place where people find relevant contextual information about things they care about.
Relevant contextual? Huh? Buzzword buzzword. Things I care about? Like is my email relevant contextual information? Or is that my IM? And where’s search in all this, Yahoo’s second largest revenue source last quarter?
Well, Bartz did name search as one of Yahoo’s most important products. But then in how her company is positioned against Google, we get this summary:Google’s a fierce competitor. They’re very good in search, very good in maps. But they don’t have the positioning and reach that we have. We are totally different companies. How we got drafted behind Google, I’m not sure. We are a place people come to be informed. Google is a place people go to do search….We want to be more personal than Google. We are about providing a more integrated experience. We are a different company than Google. Kara jumps in to ask if that means Bartz isn’t committed to holding on to the company’s 20 percent share of the search market. Bartz says it does not.
How Yahoo got drafted behind Google? How on earth did Yahoo get drafted behind Microsoft, is the question. We know how Google beat Yahoo in search — it provided a better service for longer and took people away.
Yahoo wants to be more personal than Google? Because why? Because if Google’s just a place people go to search, what’s so personal to beat? Except, of course, things like Google’s personalized web search results, which improve relevancy for some users. Or personalized news. Or personalized home pages that don’t interfere with search unless you want them to.
If search is an important product for Yahoo — if Bartz wants to maintain the 20 percent share she has and grow it — then you damn well get the word “search” out there about yourself in any comparison to Google. “Integrated experience with search,” or “…come to be informed and search” or whatever. And you especially do that when you keep losing top search talent to Google, Microsoft or elsewhere.
Because Not Being A Search Engine In 2004 Worked So Well
As you can see (or for those who just don’t read previous quotes), I felt like Bartz was backing away from Yahoo as a search engine. And a few hours later, I updated my story to add more annoyance over this:
Bartz again is talking on how Yahoo “is not a search company,” and I remembered now another reason why this is annoying me so much. Because I’ve heard it before from Yahoo, back in 2004, when Yahoo was positioned as “life engine” (better than a Bing decision engine, I guess) and “more than a search engine.”
I wrote at the time how disappointing the move was, in a piece called “Return To The Sad Days Of More Than A Search Engine?,” where I wrote in part:“More than a search engine.” It’s almost unbelievable to hear those words spoken, especially from Yahoo, which over the past year has been desperately trying to resurrect its image as a search engine. While I’ve yet to hear Google utter those exact words, its actions speak them loudly.
I’ve generally seen it unlikely that we’ll get a “new” Google in the near future, because it hasn’t seemed like the major players (Google included) would make portal mistakes again and neglect search. But the events of the past few weeks make me wonder anew.
Maybe the established companies will be able to juggle all the balls in the air — portal features, search, media sales — without dropping any of them. If not, perhaps the circle is about to turn again and a new Google really will emerge.
Since 2004, being “more than a search engine” covers an era where Yahoo’s search share plunged. I still think it’s a terrible signal to send. There’s a difference between “more than search” versus “search and more.” Be the “search and more” company, Yahoo, if you want to still be taken seriously in search.
I bolded the key point. Is Yahoo “more than search” or “search and more?” It makes a difference, especially when there’s a new competitor being heavily positioned against Google — Microsoft’s Bing.
Geez, it’s like Bartz handed a gift to Microsoft. Here Microsoft wants to build awareness that there’s an alternative to Google, and Bartz effectively tells people that Yahoo’s out of the game. It was somewhat similar to how Ask screwed up last year (see Obit: A West Coast Digerati Deadpools Ask.com) and now still struggles to be counted among the major search engines. Who thought Yahoo would shoot itself the same way?
We’re For Sale, No We’re Not; Maybe We Are, Maybe We Aren’t
Remember, we’ve also got Bartz that same week telling us how for the right price, Microsoft could buy Yahoo. Not just search but the entire thing (with no qualification about anti-trust concerns). Quoting again from my previous story:
At the end of last year, former CEO Jerry Yang got ridiculed for suggesting that Microsoft should still seek a deal at the right price. But yesterday, I saw plenty of praise for Bartz basically saying the same thing:“If there’s boatloads of money and the right technology involved, would we do a deal? Sure,” says Bartz. “It’s that simple. Not like a big secret what happens when you do a deal. It’s realism. Would sell for the right money, the right data and technology. So Yahoo is willing to sell search if the money is right and the technology is there? Bartz: “Yes.” What about the whole company? “They’d have to have biiiiig boatloads of money, though.” Are talks between the two companies still going on? Bartz says: a little bit.
Clearly Yang should have said “boatloads,” in order to escape scorn. Meanwhile, Yahoo’s search future effectively remains in limbo. I appreciate the honesty in saying that for enough money, Yahoo would have to consider any deal. But that’s removed from the actual context — which is constant reports that the companies are actively talking more than a little bit.
As long as this uncertainly hangs out there, uncertainty hangs over Yahoo Search in general. For example, do you develop for things like SearchMonkey if you’re not sure the program will be supported if Yahoo Search goes to Microsoft?
And sell the entire company? Good luck. Seriously, good luck even trying. After Microsoft led an anti-trust campaign to quash a proposed Google-Yahoo partnership (not even an acquisition), you can expect Google return the favor complaining that a sale of Yahoo would give Microsoft too much share of the email space, or the IM market, or the portal/start page space or you name it.
Realistically, Yahoo’s likely to sell its search assets to Microsoft and retain the rights to the search data stream, to help with display ad targeting and a myriad of other uses. But search is a crown jewel. Sell it, and Yahoo potentially becomes another AOL — one fighting against ironically Microsoft, which is still going to continue pushing a portal of its own.
A week later, when Bing’s getting buzz, Bartz tried to downplay it. Bing wasn’t “interesting,” wouldn’t take long-term share away from Yahoo and Microsoft should just focus on desktop apps. Oh, and there’s no need to do a Microsoft deal, as Reuters summarized:
“Yahoo doesn’t have to do anything with Microsoft about anything,” Bartz said at an investor conference.
“We are a damned big, important site,” she added later speaking at the Bank of America U.S. Technology conference.
I half expected her to say that Yahoo also wears big boy pants now, too. It just sounds so weak. And confusing. And loaded with qualifications of what anti-trust laws would allow to be sold:
When asked if it makes more sense for Yahoo to buy Microsoft’s Internet properties, Bartz said “I actually mentioned that.” But the Justice Department wouldn’t approve a deal where Yahoo acquired properties like Hotmail, she said. “It’s a great idea, but I don’t think it would work.”
Likewise, a full-blown Yahoo-Microsoft merger also would never get past the Department of Justice.
In fact, she said, the whole Microsoft-Yahoo fascination is overdone. “I personally think we would be better off if we never heard the word Microsoft.”
Well then stop talking about them! Don’t say one week that you’d sell Microsoft your entire company, then the next week complain people are asking about it. And certainly don’t say you’d sell everything one week and the next say you couldn’t sell legally if you wanted to. It makes things at the top sound even more confused.
Bartz Keeps Gifting Microsoft
Selected quotes from Bartz (indented) and thoughts from me.
We can take on Microsoft and Google. We have our own story … we’re much broader than just search.
OK, Google’s top story is that it’s a great search engine. Your story is that you’re a portal. So I guess your story to consumers is that if they want to search, go to Google. And that’s not taking on Google.
Meanwhile, Bartz extends the myth by implication that Google isn’t more than search. As if it doesn’t offer email, or IM, or news information, or finance information — you name it. Perhaps some people will buy that. I don’t think savvy people will.
Later, the interviewer says, “I’m sorry, don’t kill me, I go to Google for search at this point. How are you going to get someone like me away.”
Listen, Google has the search brand, there’s no doubt about it …. [Yahoo Search] is really designed for people that are on our sites and find something interesting, they want to look farther and they go to Yahoo Search. Twenty percent is a meaningful share. And we’re very happy to have that, and we think we have the technology to keep it.
Yes, 20 percent is meaningful. But wow, it sounds like the goal is to maintain that share, not grow it. I mean, Bartz is talking “keep” not “expand.” And that’s not surprising, if Yahoo Search is now something designed only for those already at Yahoo.
Seriously, how demoralizing for those remaining in Yahoo Search to hear from the top that they’re not competing to pull people away from Google. That Yahoo’s search product isn’t attractive enough to woe people to Yahoo. Instead, it’s just something that gets used when they’re already at Yahoo to play games, check their stocks, see news or some other products that I gather Bartz thinks are more compelling.
Amazing. And meanwhile, we see Bartz react to report Microsoft’s Bing beat Yahoo for a day in traffic. Rather than poke at the stats, which were questionable in many way, she tosses out another statement that comes across as either not knowledgeable or purposely misleading.
They didn’t beat us by much. It was one day. I think it’s gosh, maybe in Omaha some place, some small area.
It was a globalwide stat, actually. And Bing didn’t beat Yahoo at all, by some measures — but I’m sure Microsoft is glad to have the CEO of Yahoo admitting that they did.
And when asked if Bartz was worried about Microsoft getting a toehold:
We don’t want anybody getting a toehold. We want to have the best entertainment, the best content …. how do you actually manage your life and how do you actually go and find out what’s most important to you …. we have a much bigger job than this narrow area of search.
Yes, blah, blah, blah with the Life Engine stuff. We got it. You’re not a search engine. And search, which is widely seen as one of the biggest jobs on the internet, is just some narrow niche thing that Yahoo’s Bartz doesn’t seem that bothered about dominating in.
Good thing that the Department Of Justice blocked a Google-Yahoo deal on ads to ensure we had strong competition in the search space. Too bad that doesn’t seem to have caused Yahoo itself to get competitive.