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Yahoo 'for sale' sign looms over earnings

The Internet giant slightly beats expectations from financial analysts. But none of that really matters as Yahoo and CEO Marissa Mayer faces questions about the site's future.

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Yahoo is exploring a sale of its Internet business.

Chris Farina/Corbis

This is a story about Yahoo's first-quarter earnings. But it's not really.

The Internet giant slightly beat Wall Street's expectations when it announced its financial results Tuesday. The problem is that nobody cares much about those numbers anymore.

Instead, the once-mighty Web portal-turned-media company is overshadowed by intrigue over its broader fate. Not too long from now, Yahoo, founded in 1995 by Stanford students Jerry Yang and David Filo, may no longer exist.

It could be bought. It could be chopped up for parts. It could be renamed.

And that's why today's financial report is only interesting because of what CEO Marissa Mayer is saying about the possible sale of Yahoo.

"Let me be unequivocal," Mayer during a conference call. "Our board, our management team and I have made the strategic alternatives process a top priority."

"Strategic alternatives" is investor-speak for a possible sale. For the past two months, Yahoo has been shopping itself around. Properties like Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Finance and all the other stuff we think of as Yahoo may soon be bought.

Mayer didn't go into detail about possible buyers but said they are "some of the most well-known and respected names in the industry." Monday was the deadline for first-round bidders, and suitors reportedly include Verizon, YP -- formerly YellowPages.com -- and private equity firms like TPG.

Mayer said both she and CFO Ken Goldman have been meeting with interested would-be buyers and have "personally answered hundreds of questions" about the company.

Amid the gossip about who wants to buy what, Yahoo is still running a business, albeit one in decline. Sales fell to $1.087 billion from $1.22 billion a year ago. The number was roughly in line with analyst estimates. The company also beat profit expectations. Profit, minus some costs, was 8 cents a share. Analysts were hoping for 7 cents a share.

That financial snapshot is inside baseball, but what those numbers may point to is how much work a potential buyer will have to do to make Yahoo a winner again. Granted, Yahoo is still one of the most popular destinations on the Internet. It's the third most-trafficked site on the Web, after Google and Facebook, according to ComScore.

But Yahoo hasn't found a way to make much money off all that traffic. When it comes to display ads -- Yahoo's prime money maker -- Facebook and Google dominate. Together, Facebook and Google will account for nearly 40 percent of the worldwide market this year, according to eMarketer. Yahoo is expected to snag 1.7 percent.

Yahoo was once one of the brightest stars of the Internet. But mismanagement, a failed takeover bid by Microsoft a decade ago, and the changing ways of making money on the Web have gutted its business. Even though Mayer, an accomplished Google executive, took Yahoo's helm in 2012, investors believe the company is worth less than the money and assets it owns.

That doesn't mean Mayer hasn't taken steps to right the ship, including remaking all of Yahoo's sites for phones. But the shift isn't enough to excite consumers or investors.

Whatever the outcome, Mayer could come away with a big payday. If Yahoo is swallowed up in a buyout and she's dismissed from the company, Mayer would be owed $59 million, according to a report by The Guardian.

On Tuesday, Mayer said the company is working quickly through the process of sussing out a potential buyer.

"I personally believe that the right transaction could unlock tremendous value," she said.

Updated at 3:25 p.m. PT: Adds comments from Yahoo's conference call.

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