Even though it's been almost two decades since Yahoo was a media darling, the beleaguered tech company's Q3 earnings announcement Monday was dominated by the same sorts of issues that are expected to dog Facebook's much higher-profile announcement on Wednesday: Will you focus on partnerships or your own offerings? How do you compete with companies who own their own mobile platform? Where's the growth coming from?
The sexy mid-'00s story about the explosive potential of mobile tech, social media and cloud computing has just careened into the wall of reality. New, social players have the same problem as those whose dot-com empires were built on search engines, and for that matter, even lowly print media – how to turn eyeballs into revenue.
The answer is, as always, advertising. And the fight for that fickle resource is a grind, one that Facebook, Twitter et al, novel as they are, have no inherent advantage in. In fact, privacy issues resulting from selling ads against user data may even put Facebook at a disadvantage.
Marissa Mayer appears to understand that the playing field is more level than it appears, judging from her first earnings report as CEO. Unlike pricey-acquisition-oriented former leaders such as Jerry Yang or fellow suffering dot-com vets AOL (whose $315-million cash purchase of the Huffington Post was criticized), Mayer shifted the emphasis onto the company's strengths. "This is not a giant pivot," Mayer said of her proposed strategy, which combines focusing on mobile and investing in key verticals like Yahoo Sports and Flickr. "This is about improved execution."
Google, who reported on Friday, reported decreased costs per click and increased paid clicks. That indicates a decline in desktop advertising revenue growth and a corresponding increase in more costly (but more sought after) mobile ad revenue. While Yahoo has far less advertising revenue than Google, it recorded a modest profit increase (display advertising revenue came in at $452-million (U.S.), a flat figure year over year, while search advertising revenue was $414-million, a rise of 11 per cent). That suggests a company with underrated customer loyalty in the desktop space; for all their strengths, Facebook and Google don't have comparable content verticals in areas to compete with Yahoo! Sports and Yahoo! Answers. The technical barriers to entry for these products are low, but building audiences requires significant investment. (Otherwise, Yahoo's competitors would have overtaken them by now.)
Yahoo's numbers also suggest weaknesses in mobile, which Mayer acknowledged. She decried the bewildering number of Yahoo apps across Android and iOS platforms, and insisted that cleaning them up is a priority, saying, "Yahoo will have to be, predominantly, a mobile company." But with a significant desktop user base to build on, and a plan that focuses more on content and improving the user experience than on chasing trends, Yahoo is positioned to take advantage of the general shift to mobile, and the ad dollars that will come with it.
Mayer and newly hired CFO Ken Goldman will have tough decisions to make in order to keep investors and analysts happy – any company that's been drifting sideways for as long as Yahoo has likely suffers from bureaucratic bloat. But the share buybacks resulting from the sale of Alibaba, for which they reported a $2.8-billion gain, as well as the breathing room from all the recent appointments, should placate investors for a while – long enough to give Yahoo! a fighting chance against the likes of Facebook.
Correction: Costs per click increased, not decreased as we originally wrote; also, we clarified that desktop advertising revenue growth appears to have slowed, as opposed to having declined overall.