The deal is done. Microsoft has swallowed Yahoo search whole and we can all be put out of our long, lingering misery. Yahoo has given up on search and thrown in the towel. But, outside this industry and our incestuous little gossip circle, what does it really mean for average folks? Does it make a difference… really? When all is said and done, will the news amount to a hill of beans?
Well, in the long run, it’s probably a good thing for most of the players involved, including users. My original concern when rumors of Microhoo started to fly was the distraction that the integration of two very different and somewhat challenging cultures would become. I was afraid that the search user experience would get lost in the process. But the revenue share split does away with that concern, which is good for users. Yahoo can continue to be Yahoo, minus the “distraction” of search. Microsoft can get serious about search with a more viable economic engine to justify their investment. Basically, the deal gives Microsoft a whole lot more eyeballs for Bing, and that’s going to be beneficial for everyone.
But there are some other reasons why the search user could benefit from this deal:
A release of talent
There’s a whole bunch of PO’d, disenfranchised search engineers that have just had a frightening but potentially liberating view of the future: freed from the shackles of the rapidly sinking S.S. Yahoo, they might actually have a chance to do something meaningful in search.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to various members of the Yahoo! search team over the last several years, under Semel, Yang and Bartz. The underlying current was always one of thinly veiled frustration. They deserved better. They were smart and, once upon a time, passionate about search. But for the past several years they were left hanging out there, blowing in the breeze. They yearned to do something meaningful. Now, with the ladder kicked out from underneath them, they have no alternative. Whoever hasn’t already jumped ship will be forced to find new, and hopefully, more rewarding homes.
Pushing the wolves back from the door
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, or, less anachronistically, a skipping MP3 file, search needs a major shot of innovation. The dysfunctional competitive environment that we’ve had for the last few years put all the major players in a position where innovation wasn’t encourage. Specifically:
Google. As the market leader with a major marketshare, almost completely dependent on the search advertising revenue stream, it’s hard to rock that boat too vigorously. Every minor change in the search UI could have a potentially negative impact on ad clickthroughs. The dynamics of the SERP are subtle and small changes can have big impacts on behavior. Given the obsessive focus on quarterly revenue numbers by Wall Street analysts, and the macro economic impact of the recession, this was not the time to boldly screw around with your golden egg-laying goose. Google always speaks a good game when it comes to hyping their efforts to innovate in search, but come on, how different is the Google SERP now from what it was 4 years ago? How innovative have they been with AdWords?
Microsoft. Microsoft was the one who was really in a position to innovate, but despite repeated commitments to search from everyone from Gates on down for the last several years, the company’s track record has been less than stellar, to be exceedingly kind. Bing is the first sign that they’re motivated to get it right, and that’s really more of a catch up move than anything. But at least they’re in the game now. I think the biggest problem was getting alignment in the gargantuan, lumbering Microsoft corporate structure. There was a lot of left hand/right hand lack of communication from Spanky and the gang in Redmond. It’s hard to innovate when you don’t even know who’s working on what.
With Bing, Microsoft showed they can execute. Now, let’s see if they can innovate.
Yahoo. You don’t innovate on the Titanic: you just try to survive. Nuff said.
What the Microsoft-Yahoo deal does is allow Microsoft’s search champions to better sell the need to innovate within the company. They have a bigger market share, can forecast significant revenue potential and make the case for investing in rapidly upping the search experience bar. Microsoft can afford the fluctuations that are inevitable in ad revenue as they experiment with the UI, because search is a pretty small drop in the revenue bucket. And it’s certainly not that they don’t have the resources—all they need is the corporate prioritization and alignment. This deal may just do that for them.
A bigger ad inventory
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sent the signal of the true value of a Yahoo partnership when he said last December:
“We’re fully prepared to compete without any partnership with Yahoo. We don’t need to act. Would it be advantageous for both of us to make a deal? Look, the fundamental basis for doing the search deal with Yahoo has to do with critical mass in the advertising marketplace. It doesn’t have to do with technology, or any of these other things, it really is a market phenomenon. Together we would have more advertisers… which means we’d have more relevant ads on our page. We’d have higher monetization levels possible in front of us because there would be more people bidding on more key words. Most importantly, Google would have perhaps a real credible competitor sooner.”
Success in search is all about relevancy. And if ads are going to be part of the results set, those ads better be as relevant as possible. The bigger the ad inventory, the more relevant they will be. It’s a pretty simple equation.
And ad relevance is massively important to the user experience. At Enquiro we’ve done several studies that either directly or indirectly examined the importance of ad relevance to the overall search experience. The results are abundantly clear: the better the ads, the happier the user. The deal gives Microsoft a massive increase in advertiser inventory, and that’s perhaps the most important asset in the deal. It doesn’t matter that Yahoo gets 88% of the revenue. That’s short term thinking. This is about running all those ads through the Microsoft platform, giving them the ability to control quality, targeting and relevance. The goal is gaining market share, and you need the highest quality ads possible to do that.
A stronger commitment from advertisers
No longer is an ad buy on Microsoft tossing them a bone out of guilt or a gesture of protest against a Google monopoly. With a combined market share pushing 30 points, that’s a serious slice of available eyeballs. Microsoft just became a mandatory buy. That allows them to build stronger relationships with advertisers, getting a more serious commitment in return. If Microsoft can pull the pieces of AdCenter together like they did with Bing, they’ll have a pretty powerful ad management platform. And Microsoft doesn’t suffer from the same passive-aggressive relationship with marketers that still lingers in the halls of the Googleplex. Advertisers look at Google with a mixture of resignation, fear and resentment. More than a few will willing fall into Microsoft’s embrace, now that there’s a justifiable reason to do so.
How does this help the user? Happy advertisers mean happy corporate execs up in Redmond, which means more of an appetite for innovation. Expect Microsoft to be more innovative in offering sponsored search formats. And happy advertisers also means more relevant ads (see my previous point).
More serious competition for Google
This deal sends a signal Google can’t ignore. They’re still in the search driver’s seat, but at least now they can see someone in their rearview mirror. If Microsoft can adopt a passion for innovation and push the envelope, Google will have to respond in kind. The search experience will evolve more rapidly, hopefully kicked out of the revenue obsessed stasis that it’s currently in. Stagnation benefits no one except the analysts and bean counters who insist that quarter over quarter performance is the only metric that matters. We’re way too early in the game to be that cautious and boring.
Will the Microsoft-Yahoo deal break the Google habit? No. In fact, Google will probably net a couple more percentage points out of this in the short term. But this lays the foundation of a more competitive market place, which can’t help but benefit users.
The deal puts Microsoft in the game. Now, let’s see what they do with the opportunity.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.