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Don’t call it a comeback

Yahoo's showing signs of motion after a long period in the morgue. But is it reborn, or just undead?

Yahoo's Marissa Mayer in Davos this year. Photograph: Getty Images

A conference call discussing fourth quarter earnings at Yahoo appears to have ignited a surge of optimism for the veteran web company’s prospects – just google “yahoo comeback” to find out – but are commentators getting carried away?

Yahoo reported a 14 percent rise in earnings during 2012’s final quarter, supported largely by growth in search advertising revenue, and pleasantly surprised investors: share price immediately jumped 5 percent, topping off a 25 percent six month rally.

Most encouragingly, in a call to analysts discussing the result, newly installed CEO Marissa Mayer said the company’s next investments would go towards the entrenchment of Yahoo services in users’ “core daily habits” – the most core of these (if you don’t mind the term ‘core’ being used as an adjective) being its search function.

The FT headlines this as Yahoo “taking on google in the search wars”, but I don’t know if I’d go that far.

To put things plainly, despite overall revenue growing 4 percent, Yahoo’s actual net income fell 8 percent year-on-year, a fact that seems to appear at the bottom of most reports on the results if it appears at all.

More to the point, even with search advertising revenues healthy, the company only presides over a small and shrinking slice of the search advertising market - 6.2 per cent in 2012 compared to 17.8 per cent in 2008 according to one research firm.

So why the sudden optimism?

Because, at the heart of it, everyone likes an underdog story. And this has all the ingredients of a great one.

Google, having dominated the search market since the advent of its PageRank function in the early 2000s, is an obvious Goliath, and has fallen prey to the same erosion of public trust that has afflicted other web giants – see also Facebook, Apple and Amazon.

Furthermore, Yahoo has a young and charismatic CEO who has obviously captured the imagination of analysts and investors alike. And let’s not forget she’s ex-Google – not only does this fact make the narrative more pleasing, it adds serious credibility to the idea of the near-forgotten nineties relic clawing back ground from a complacent rival.

Yahoo’s long-term prospects in the ‘wars’ for users’ everyday web activity remain dubious. At the very least, however, the current burst of media excitement has awarded it an early marketing victory.