Microsoft, Yahoo now free to focus on new selves

The two companies have plenty of challenges now, but the ground rules have been set: Yahoo's job is to be an online hub, and Microsoft's job is to out-Google Google.

Investors panned Yahoo's search and advertising deal with Microsoft on Wednesday, sending Yahoo's stock down 12 percent. IDC's analysts called it a "strategic mistake."

But here's what's good about it: After a year and a half of public scrapping, behind-the-scenes drama, and dysfunctional communications through leaks to the press, Microsoft and Yahoo now can get back to business.

The Microhoo concept has been reduced from a giant cloud of uncertainty hanging over both companies to merely a complicated partnership between two rivals with Google as a common foe. The range of possibilities for Microsoft and Yahoo, which ran all the way from nothing to Yahoo disappearing altogether, has been pruned back to a much more manageable scope.

Nobody will notice any difference immediately from the outside. First comes regulatory scrutiny, with the companies hoping for approval in early 2010. But already, the deal provides a framework that should make it easier for the companies to establish their new identities.

With Microsoft acquiring license to Yahoo's search technology, applying its search-ad auction process to both companies' searches, and offering jobs to many Yahoo employees , it appears Redmond is carrying more of the Ph.D.-intensive fight to Google. Yahoo, keeping its display advertising business and focusing on its home page redesign , becomes more of a hub for people's online activity and platform for outside Web sites' developers.

Some awkwardness remains where those two visions overlap. One is the work Yahoo has done to augment search results through a program called SearchMonkey , which can interpret tags on others' Web sites so they can be spruced up with new information when those pages appear in search results. To work, it requires the cooperation of the Web crawlers that index the contents of Web pages and the servers that present the search results.

To me, that looks like the sort of chore that will require Microsoft and Yahoo to work together in search. Fortunately, Microsoft and Yahoo have a 100-page playbook that had better address such aspects, and Microsoft Senior Vice President Yusuf Mehdi declared Wednesday he likes the SearchMonkey approach .

The companies also gave themselves two full years to fully implement the deal, too, so there's time to work out such details. In the meantime, Yahoo can't afford to stand still. SearchMonkey is one element of a new hybrid search page that Yahoo said it will start testing with its users starting in August.

There's some important context for these changes and for the Microsoft-Yahoo deal: search results are growing beyond the plain list of 10 hyperlinks with accompanying snippets of text. Google, for example, blends in ever larger quantities of "universal" search results such as maps, YouTube videos, photos, and news.

Yahoo plans to make its search pages more like its main page.
Yahoo plans to make its search pages more like its main page. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Yahoo's new search results page include not only SearchMonkey, but also display advertising and the key element of its new home page, a customizable list of applications down the left side. The search results themselves become just part of a broader package, so Yahoo outsourcing the actual search engine duties to Microsoft isn't giving away as much of the core business.

Outsourcing search has a cost, of course. The partnership means Yahoo will get only 88 percent of search-ad revenue on its sites for the first five years, down from 100 percent today. Yahoo, though, also gets lower operational expenses and thus, it expects, greater profitability over the long term. Yahoo expects $275 million more each year in operating cash flow.

Carol Bartz, Yahoo's new chief executive, has shown herself to be a pragmatist who prefers picking her battles. With the Microsoft deal, she's chosen to sit a big one out, freeing the company from having to out-Google Google. What the company sacrifices in ambition it gets back in goals that are actually attainable.

For Microsoft, though, the struggle against Google becomes more intense. The combined search market share of Yahoo and Microsoft still is half what Google has, and the fact that Wednesday's Yahoo pact is smaller in scope than some earlier possible incarnations means Microsoft has that much more hard work before it.

The company clearly wants to make a third big business out of its online operations to complement its Windows and Office cash cows. Getting Yahoo's search technology and Web site traffic gives it a better stronghold but by no means a victory.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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