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Yahoo takes pulse of consumer demand

A series of customer surveys making their way onto the company's sites suggest it's readying what may be its most serious effort yet to cut its dependence on advertising.

Yahoo is considering several new paid services, including broadband access, that could help the Web giant find new sources of revenue amid a steep decline in online advertising.

A series of customer surveys making their way onto Yahoo sites in recent weeks suggest the company is readying what may be its most serious effort yet to cut its dependence on advertising, although it's unclear whether Yahoo will actually launch any of the services.

Among other things, recent Yahoo surveys take the pulse of consumer demand for a Yahoo-branded high-speed Internet access service and a secure corporate instant-messaging service. As previously reported, the company also is testing the waters for paid Web-based office applications.

A Yahoo representative would not comment on the surveys or whether the company will enter any of the new businesses suggested by the surveys.

"We pride ourselves on conducting extensive research on various targets, whether they prove to be future services or not," the representative said. "We field numerous surveys to gather and analyze the interests of our users."

But with the company's shares down 90 percent from their 52-week high, it's investors, not just customers, who are commanding Yahoo's attention.

Corporate and premium consumer services have been a rallying cry for the Web portal since late last year, when it became clear that the Internet economy was headed for a meltdown. But nearly six months into the reign of Chief Executive Terry Semel, Yahoo has made little progress in weaning itself from advertisers. As of its last earnings call, the company said it expects 80 percent of its revenue to come from advertising, as opposed to about 85 percent in 2000.

The decline in online advertising spending has forced Yahoo to cut revenue forecasts in half since the beginning of the year, from more than $1.4 billion to between $700 million and $775 million--an outlook that may be reduced further when the company issues third-quarter earnings results later this month.

Even with the prospects of new services on the horizon, analysts said Yahoo faces a difficult task in selling them to paying customers, a resource that has been scarce to date online.

"Yahoo's motives here are pretty clear," said Mark Mooradian, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix. "They're continuing to try to diversify revenues away from advertising. But I think consumers, especially in these trying times, are not going to warm up to subscriptions overnight unless the offering is truly compelling."

Hints that Yahoo is considering entering the high-speed Internet access business came last week, when the company began promoting consumer surveys on its site. One of the surveys asks a series of questions to determine people's appetite for paying for Web-based services that were otherwise free. Then, in a series of questions about people's Internet connection speed, the survey asked what services people would prefer for high-speed access at home. The options included America Online, cable companies, local telephone providers, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo (if offered as an Internet service).

In a separate survey, readers were told to assume that Yahoo has a version of its IM service for internal use in small and midsize businesses. Dubbed the "secure" version of Yahoo Messenger, the proposed service would include secure login, encrypted messaging and peer-to-peer messaging. The survey then asked whether people would "be willing to pay for such a 'secure' Messenger."

Third quarter looks grim
The exploration for new revenue sources comes as Yahoo faces an increasingly bleak financial outlook.

Already, Wall Street analysts are sounding alarms, warning that Yahoo's business for this year and next remains questionable. With the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon, advertising pullbacks as a whole have given the media industry a significant blow.

Yahoo premium services launched this year

Consumers

Yahoo ClubConnect
Cost: $19.95/mo., $42.95/3 mos., $89.95/yr.
Service: Initiate communication with unlimited number of singles. For $4.95, create enhanced ads lasting 45 days that stand out through priority placement.

Yahoo GeoCities Pro
Cost: $8.95/mo., plus one-time $15 setup fee
Service: Personal Web address, 5 e-mail accounts linked to that address, 25MB of storage, 10GB of data transfer, and 5 sub-sites. For $5 more/mo., add 50MB increments of storage.

Yahoo GeoCities Webmaster
Cost: $11.95/mo., plus one-time $15 setup fee
Service: Double the amount of storage space and data transfer as GeoCities Pro, twice as many personal e-mail accounts and sub-domains, a password-protected area and search function options, and access to 20 Site Wizard templates for building professional-looking pages. For $5 more/mo., add 50MB increments of storage.

Yahoo Fantasy Football Plus
Cost: $24.95/team ($37.50/2 teams) per season
Service: In addition to features in the free game option, includes real-time StatTracker, wireless access to team info, manager rankings, a weekly newsletter and prizes.

Yahoo Finance Research Package
Cost: $14.95/5 reports, $24.95/10 reports, $49.95/25 reports; can also be purchased individually
Service: In-depth analyst research reports on thousands of individual companies during a 30-day period.

Yahoo Shopping Consumer Reports
Cost: $2.95/report with 30 days' access
Service: In-depth buying advice, performance ratings, and info on features and brand reliability, similar to info in Consumer Reports magazine. Thirty-day access to reports. Free guides also available.

Yahoo By Phone
Cost: $4.95/mo. (first month free)
Service: Listen to e-mail, voice mail, stock quotes, weather, sports and news by calling 1-800-MY-YAHOO.

Yahoo Real-Time Quotes
Cost: $9.95/mo.
Service: Unlimited real-time quotes, news and analysis.

Yahoo Auctions
Cost and services: 20 cents to $2.25 depending on starting and reserve price of items; $2/auction to make the title of the auction item appear in bold; $1/auction to select a gift or holiday-themed icon; 10 cents/auction for an item to be a featured listing.

Businesses

Yahoo Sponsored Sites
Cost: $25-$300/mo.
Service: Commercial Web sites in the Yahoo directory receive enhanced placement in the Business to Business and Shopping and Services commercial categories of the directory.

Last week, Jordan Rohan, an equity analyst at Wit SoundView, reduced Yahoo's revenue estimates for this year and for 2002. Rohan said Yahoo would generate $608 million in revenue for 2001, down from the company's prediction of between $700 million and $775 million for the year. Rohan also said earnings would break even in 2002, instead of his previous estimate for earnings of 13 cents per share.

Other analysts said they plan to wait for Yahoo's Oct. 10 earnings report before adjusting their expectations.

"I don't know how you can really tell what's going to happen for the fourth quarter," said Kathleen Heaney, an analyst at Brean Murray. "I really don't know how to figure out how bad it can be right now."

Although advertising has weakened, it remains the pillar of Yahoo's business. In its most recent earnings call, the company said it expects only about a fifth of its revenue to come from other sources.

A significant percentage of this revenue comes from sales of its Corporate Yahoo product, which serves companies looking to manage their internal employee Web network. Its licensees include McDonalds, Bayer and Seagate Technology, to name a few. Other sources of non-advertising dollars include its broadcast services division, which offers a way for companies to Webcast internal meetings.

The remaining percentage comes from Yahoo's premium services, which the company has introduced aggressively in the past year. But analysts say they are still waiting for evidence that these services are helping the bottom line significantly.

Yahoo's paid services range in price and generally do not have a unifying price plan or a central hub to shop for them, analysts said. Typical examples include tweaks to Yahoo's personals and GeoCities Web-hosting services, changes that together have little promise of delivering more than a fraction of the company's overall revenue.

Some analysts are more bullish about a planned online music service. Yahoo has an agreement to sell songs through Pressplay, a subscription service backed by Vivendi Universal and Sony that is scheduled to launch by the end of the year.

The missing link?
Although there is no assurance that Yahoo will enter the high-speed Internet access business or create a for-pay IM service, research aimed at gauging the potential of both could signal a considerable change in the Web portal's strategy.

Yahoo has long downplayed any desire to own an Internet service provider and has never made significant inroads in co-marketing partnerships with other ISPs. The company has always maintained its stance of keeping instant messaging free and has never publicly considered offering a corporate version of the service.

Yahoo executives and outside observers have long debated whether the company needs to run its own Internet access business.

The company has watched as competitor Excite.com sold its business to high-speed cable ISP @Home; America Online acquired Time Warner, which owns the second-largest cable network; and Lycos sold itself to Spanish ISP Terra Networks.

The results have been a mixed bag. Excite@Home has filed for bankruptcy, and Terra Lycos continues to struggle. Meanwhile, AOL Time Warner has begun to launch its AOL cable ISP.

Yahoo has already tried, unsuccessfully, to break into the online access business. It first signed up with MCI in 1998 to offer Yahoo Online. When MCI was acquired by WorldCom later that year, Yahoo switched its provider to AT&T's WorldNet access service, charging $14.95 a month for limited dial-up access.

A WorldNet representative said the Yahoo deal ended more than a year ago and that a relationship no longer exists between the two companies. AT&T WorldNet still has a co-branded dial-up service, but it does not yet offer a broadband option. The company is looking at providing a DSL (digital subscriber line) service with the network it inherited from NorthPoint Communications, however. AT&T Broadband, a separate division, is expanding its cable modem network by acquiring Excite@Home's assets in a bankruptcy proceeding.

Although partnerships such as that between Yahoo and AT&T promise a relatively cheap and simple way to reap marketing fees, they are rarely hassle-free. Customer service, for example, can become a significant complication for both sides.

Yahoo continues to offer a branded online access service to its subscribers in Ireland and the United Kingdom, according to its Web site.

But some analysts think the environment is ripe for Yahoo to get into the access business. At a time when advertising continues to slump, the company needs a boost in recurring revenue. As AOL Time Warner can attest, selling subscriptions provides a safety net for media companies in the event of a down advertising market.

Could Net access provider EarthLink be a fit for Yahoo?

EarthLink is expected this year to generate $1 billion to $1.2 billion in revenue for 2001, according to Frank Gristina, an analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey who covers the company. And despite the collapse of many Internet stocks, EarthLink is trading near $16, which gives it a market cap of about $2.1 billion.

EarthLink could also give Yahoo a foothold into high-speed cable services. EarthLink has an agreement to provide broadband cable access to Time Warner Cable subscribers. It has already launched in Columbus, Ohio, and Syracuse, N.Y.

However, buying EarthLink may be more difficult than ever. Yahoo's once-mighty stock has plummeted with the rest of the online media sector and now trades around $9 a share, down from its 52-week high of $92.

"I think EarthLink would be an incredible fit, but I don't think Yahoo can afford them right now," Gristina said.