Yahoo, The Fourth Quarter’s Still Yours

Here’s the column that ran yesterday in MediaPost, continuing in the extended entry as always.

YAHOO, PUT YOURSELF IN TOM Brady’s
shoes in Super Bowl LXII. You spend a couple quarters getting knocked
around, playing short of your potential. You’re not showing that drive
that you want to win. But then you reach the fourth quarter, and you
realize that you can still control your own destiny. You can dig in,
make a few plays, and find yourself in control of the game.

 

So,
Yahoo, do you muster up the confidence to make another great drive, or
do you take Microsoft’s offer and let the clock run down?

Enough stretching Super Bowl metaphors (for now). Here’s why I’m concerned about Yahoo’s prospects if the acquisition happens:


 

 Portals dilute brand value. Microsoft,
Yahoo, and AOL are the last of the true portals, the generic start
pages where you can access a lot of stuff online. MySpace and Facebook
are inching toward the portal route, but their version of it is to give
users a window into what their friends are doing online (Plaxo wants to
do the same in a more business-friendly context, and we’ll see how well
it succeeds; Yahoo is trying its own version of it, albeit following
far behind). The old definition of the portal may remain relevant for
hundreds of millions of users around the world, but as people get
savvier with digital media, such portals diminish in value. Social,
personal portals are the better bet, and Microsoft is ill-equipped for
such a future.

 

Good vs. evil vs. ehh: Does
Microsoft stand a chance against the "don’t be evil" mantra of Google,
if Google holds true to it at all, as the company has done so far?
Yahoo doesn’t stoke many passionate opinions either way, so going from
bland to evil is a step down. Now, it might seem silly that Google’s
still trying to pretend it’s this innocent newcomer when it’s as
hell-bent on world domination as everyone else. Consumers are still
rooting for Google, though. If I’m at a social gathering and bring up
Google, everyone’s dying to hear more and starts chiming in with how
Google saved their life. If I bring up Microsoft, they tell me how much
they hate Office 2007.

 

Mission statements: impossible:
Microsoft remains a software company, one with the vague mission
statement of helping "people and businesses throughout the world
realize their full potential." In other words, Microsoft wants to be
Dr. Phil, which is fine, as I’ve had days where I’ve wanted to be Dr.
Phil, too, even to the point of occasionally making up Dr. Phil-isms
and spouting them in a horribly butchered Texas accent.

 

It’s
hard figuring out exactly what Yahoo’s mission is, but it uses the word
community on its site a lot, and its corporate site also tells you,
"There are more Yahoo! Mail users around the world than two times the
population of Mexico." So this means there are two companies with a
lack of direction (and one with a hankering for flan). Yet if Yahoo
gave this some more thought, it could come up with something really
powerful and focused, like a mission to give the entire world the most
complete, fun, connected experience online (surely someone there could
write it better). More than anyone, Yahoo can embody that young, goofy,
innocent approach to the Web that made it so much fun in the first
place, but if it shifts operations to Redmond, then the fun dies and
only synergy remains.

 

The search experience matters.
Of all the major search engines, MSN / Windows Live Search is my least
favorite. I still use it here and there, but that’s out of necessity.
The opposite’s true for all the others. Sure, I use Google the most,
but I like Yahoo and Ask.com quite a bit, and even AOL’s more inviting.
It would be sad to have Yahoo’s search team answer to Microsoft’s. Last
year Yahoo came out with Search Assist, one of the best search
innovations this decade; there’s still hope.

 

(Note that my qualms are on the consumer side; I’m a big fan of what
Microsoft’s doing with adCenter, its research tools, and much else of
what goes on behind the scenes. Some of the smartest and most
passionate people I’ve met in this business have either cut their teeth
at Microsoft or headed over there. That being said, Microsoft first
needs to satisfy consumers before it takes more of advertisers’
budgets.)

 

Maybe none of this
matters to Yahoo. And there are no guarantees. Tom Brady had that flash
of inspiration and took the lead only to get stunned and find himself
watching someone else’s victory parade.

He’ll at least come back for another round next year. We’ll see if the same applies to Yahoo.