I’ve spent much of the week pondering Microsoft and Yahoo’s new search deal. Given that Google’s similar offer to Yahoo! last year was deemed anticompetitive, and that the status quo in search based ads may also be anticompetitive, we should at least consider the possibility that this partnership could be a good thing.
Some background: Yahoo! Search has been tanking for a long time. Since the money is in selling ads alongside the search results (whether keyword buys or bulk display), Yahoo! can’t monetize those search pages if the results are no good. Microsoft had a similar problem for a while (see Windows Live, Fiasco That Was) but it was nothing compared to the bigger threat Google poses to them in the application space—if (when) Google succeeds in moving us all to cloud applications, Microsoft’s real money pot, in office software, is cooked. To Google, cloud apps don’t matter as standalone revenue sources but as part of a massive data-mining operation. So as long as Microsoft and Yahoo! continue to lumber along independently, with both losing to Google in search and Google closing in on Microsoft in applications, Google has nothing to worry about.
Does that change with a deal like this? Yahoo! agrees to give up its search technology and let Microsoft, with its new Bing search engine, power search results on Yahoo! sites. Yahoo! and Microsoft then share the ad revenue on the results, except that Yahoo! gets 88% of it. A lot of pundits balked at the whole premise, but I disagree.
Yahoo! beats Google in one category of sites Google offers consumers as a ploy to gather data—media content. Yahoo!’s portal pages—its news aggregators, finance listings and fantasy sports leagues, for example—are more robust and richly developed—than anything Google has on offer. Yahoo! has all these people (myself included) turning up to check on their fantasy teams, but they can’t keep them there and effectively monetize them because the users don’t stick around to use the search bar. If they can outsource the search to Microsoft, they can keep those folks around and make a neat little business as a portal. Maybe it keeps some small fraction of users off Google who would otherwise flit there from the Yahoo! pages, but not enough to unseat Google. It’s not quite pro-competitive in that sense, but it is pro-innovation because it allows Yahoo! to keep developing a competency in something Google doesn’t do well.
Moreover, it may train Microsoft to finally trust the web. Have a look at the character of the experience provided on a Yahoo-powered-by-Microsoft home page: it’s free content with ads, just like Google pages are, but it’s less Googley in tone. Yahoo’s portal sites differ from Google’s (see above) in that they are more developed, more curated. Microsoft’s search technology differs from Google’s in that it’s less crowd-sourced and more directed. Like Yahoo!, it’s designed for and marketed to people who are sick of navigating the web for themselves, who WANT a little direction and intelligent design. The synergy here makes sense.
If it works, it may open Microsoft’s eyes to a broader business in serving those users, which is where Microsoft’s ultimate salvation has to be. Google still hasn’t convinced Microsoft’s big corporate clients to replace Excel with Google Spreadsheets—what Microsoft needs to offer isn’t a copycat product that also spare and barebones, but something a little more robust and only partially open, what I might call cloud-lite. I have no idea what this would look like, but I think it’s something Microsoft has the best shot of anyone at developing and would be a new addition to the space, an actual innovation.
In other words, what these deal actually does is secure Google’s continued dominance in search, Yahoo!’s in curated content and potentially Microsoft’s in office applications—even in the cloud age. It doesn’t end any monopolies but splits the current market of ALL ONLINE CONTENT into three into which each of these firms can dominate a piece. That at least cuts them all down to a focused size and makes them, perhaps, easier for smaller fry to take on in a focused way.