4 May

Microsoft (MSFT) to buy Yahoo (YHOO)? I must confess that can’t see an acquisition happening, but I suppose it’s possible. The market seems to believe something will happen, given Yahoo shares are up over 15% today. With Google (GOOG) owning over half the market, and growing at more than double the rate of Yahoo’s and Microsoft’s respective online advertising efforts this past quarter, I believe each needs to take action to become more competitive in this arena.

Larger players (in terms of market share) benefit from the network effects inherent in this space, as Google has shown. The combined MSFT-YHOO entity would control 32% of the worldwide search market, compared with roughly 54% for Google, based on March numbers. So it gets them a little closer to Google’s market share, but still a distant second.

The ability to spread the operational infrastructure across a larger base of users is a powerful force; the broader the network, the more valuable that network becomes. As goes Metcalfe’s Law, the value of a network is proportional to the square of the users in that system (i.e. n-squared). Google is the most popular search destination, but also boasts a huge network of third-party sites on which to place ads. Yahoo has the most popular online “portal,” but has not been as successful at monetizing its position as has Google. There’s not much to say about Microsoft.

That said, the result of combining Microsoft and Yahoo’s online advertising capabilities will be a more robust platform for advertisers, but likely won’t change much for users of their sites. I think an integration of some sort makes strategic sense for both parties. But what makes more sense to me here is a joint venture, not a merger. With a merger, the two companies would have a difficult time integrating the two cultures. Certainly that is one of the strengths of Google – a culture that encourages innovation in this space. Trying to put together two disparate cultures into one company would likely be to the effort’s detriment.

This is a situation that certainly bears watching: (formerly?) sworn enemies taking the “lesser of two evils” path to gain some ground on Google. Even if today’s speculation comes to fruition, I don’t think Google needs to be shaking in its boots just yet.

Full disclosure: Long MSFT.


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