Innovation vs. M&A at Yahoo

Now that the deal between Microsoft and Yahoo is done, it got me thinking more about Yahoo and it’s position as a pioneer of the web. That it was one is not in doubt; its directory was indeed a first and useful. But how much else did it actually pioneer? Have a look at a list of Yahoo’s acquisitions.

  • Search – surely the cornerstone of the business, yet its very first search engine was licensed from Open Text in 1995. Sure, it went on to build its own and do some great work, but now with the deal done with Microsoft, Yahoo has exited the search business.
  • Webmail – I recall getting a great Yahoo email address when that came out in 1997; it was a pioneer, but it got there by purchasing and its RocketMail service . Now my account is overrun with spam and unusable (yet the company has the temerity to regularly threaten to cut me off for having too much mail and not using it enough, all of which is spam that its own spam filters can’t control. Hmmm.)
  • Personal publishing – it was an early major player in personal publishing now called blogging, but again it got there largely by purchasing GeoCities for an enormous amount of Yahoo stock.
  • Advertising – it pioneered banner ads on the web but as we all know but caught out by keyword search innovation from Google (which it built, rather than bought). And it had to buy Overture from Idealab.
  • Rich media – the deal unleashed Mark Cuban on an unsuspecting world.
  • Photos – to its credit and bought Flickr and then largely left it alone
  • Social bookmarking – same goes for

But if the rest that can be said for it is that Yahoo knew when to leave its acquired companies alone, to give them space to grow and continue innovating then all that’s left is a dwindling brand and company with some choice assets left intact for others to pick up over time. As this article pointed out recently, many of these acquired assets have been closed down, some only after a few years.

There is still innovation happening within Yahoo, plenty of it and I wish the folks at Yahoo working in the labs on some great semantic technology, among other things the best of luck. But touting a new home page just last week doesn’t give me much hope that Yahoo really gets the distributed, read/write Web. Who cares about home pages?

And of course Yahoo isn’t going anywhere soon, it has plenty of cash in the bank and a new revenue stream courtesy of Microsoft. But I doubt it will last out the 10 years of this deal.

One of things all this demonstrates is that M&A is different in different parts of the tech industry. In enterprise software quite often a company is buying a customer base and its ongoing maintenance stream – this is how Oracle has grown. But on the web with people not paying you directly and with very low (to nil) switching costs to another search engine, serving up a different set of ads, things are very different and you have to focus on core competences, not run after each new fad just as it’s peaking and buy your way into it.

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1 comment so far ↓

#1 Erich Viedge on 07.30.09 at 10:36 am

I was really surprised to see the terms of the deal as 10 years — I also don’t think the deal will last that long. Either Yahoo! will disappear or morph into something else, or even Microsoft. Ten years is a LONG time in this industry.