The ups and downs of the Micro-hoo saga continue unabated, with renewed Carl Icahn intrigue being the flavor of the week. The noose that irate shareholders have been verbally tying around Jerry Yang’s neck seems to be getting tighter all the time.
But this time even usually stalwart Micro-hoo cheerleader Michael Arrington of TechCrunch is saying that Microsoft may be going too far in its Machiavellian machinations to want to feast on Yahoo’s carcass.
Meanwhile David Kirkpatrick, senior editor of Fortune Magazine, argues that Microsoft will inevitably buy Yahoo, making the case that it has gotten personal for Redmond ever since Google wrested the crown of perceived "greatest and most powerful tech company" away from them.
But in arguing that Microsoft desperately needs Yahoo’s scale, Kirkpatrick falls into the same "scale will solve things" thought trap that is deluding Microsoft, and plenty of commentators throughout the blogosphere in both posts and comments as well.
Currently Google’s monetization advantage vs. Yahoo (confirmed, and likely similar vs. MSN/Live Search), that comes from their focused execution is somewhere around 50-100%. And it has NOTHING to do with "scale".
It has everything to do with the advertisers being able to afford higher average bids due to higher average conversions. Period.
Conversion is the only thing that ultimately matters to an advertiser. Scale is a straw-man. If YHOO or MSFT had equal or better conversion numbers for the same keywords, then advertisers would jump on that. The individual advertiser could care less about the total query share numbers, or total number of clicks, they only care about their ads converting when they are being shown and clicked on.
If you mail a direct response ad, do you care what total percentage of the region or nation that mailing list reaches? No way. You care about the conversion numbers, because if an ad doesn’t convert you can’t long afford to mail/run it. In search ads, if you fail to convert the clicks you get, as a small business you can be bankrupt before you know it. It’s that simple.
The total volume of searches or even clicks for a keyword on Google, Yahoo, or MSN/Live has little or nothing to do with it. It’s simply that at lower conversion rates on Yahoo or MSN/Live, advertisers have a harder time making the economics work for them.
Steve Ballmer should change his tune at the next Microsoft company meeting:
Conversion, conversion, conversion…
Few people in "big business" understand direct response models, but that is what search advertising ultimately is. It is NOT image advertising, because Google text ads, whether served with search results or on websites and blogs as "Adsense" ads, do not lend themselves to branding exercises like display (image) ads or TV commercials.
The old adage of marketers – "I know half of my advertising is wasted, the problem is, I dont know which half" – does not hold true for the direct response model that pay-per-click ads served with searches or with content are based on.
Any advertiser with a basic understanding of the Adwords campaign management backend can tell EXACTLY which half is not working, then tweak the keywords, ad copy, asf. and turn off non-performing ads/keywords in short order.
Myth #2: "Affluence Gap"
A similar oft-repeated myth is the following statement taken from an Alley Insider comment:
Google has […] the most affluent search users. Therefore, ad buyers want their ad to be shown on Google, and the price is bid up.
It isn’t about the supposed greater affluence of the Google users at all, otherwise Yahoo could not outsource THE AD SERVES (NOT the searches) to Google and instantly get 60-80% higher returns. Note that we’re talking about the very same (Yahoo) search users as before.
It’s about Google’s superior monetization that is due to their fanatical refinements of ad serves and the search results themselves, AND the higher conversion rates that the advertisers are experiencing.
Now there is one other side to this that is in fact branding/positioning related: The context in which an ad is served. With Google, since Google = search, users are in a "searching for a solution" mindset much more so (on average) than on Yahoo (or MSN), where people may be for any number of reasons (social, email, IM, news, etc.).
This is the real draw-back of the portal strategy that Yahoo and MSN embraced, which by definition leads to brand dilution: You have no idea about the exact user mindset, and many if not most of the pages you serve create contexts that are counter to anyone clicking on ads.
How many ads have you personally ever clicked on that got served with your free online email? Your chat? Your Yahoo groups, etc.? Chances are, none. After a brief period of mental adjustments, you likely started to completely ignore those ads.
Even Google had to learn this lesson, when they found last year that the social networking inventories for Adsense ads (e.g. on MySpace) were monetizing far lower (because converting less) than expected: People just weren’t looking to buy when networking on-line. It’s two different things.
From the point of view of the advertisers, all that matters to them is per-click cost and conversion. That alone determines whether their PPC campaign is viable past a few days. If Yahoo could allow them to get workable numbers, they’d be more than happy to bid higher on Yahoo’s search inventories.
So it is this mindset context differential rather than any affluence disparity, or the vaunted "search share" scale myth, which gets even usually smart and tech savvy people like Alley Insider’s Henry Blodget to drink Microsoft’s Kool-Aid on why they need Yahoo’s search division.
As long as this myth persists, there will likely be no peace for Yahoo.