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?

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.

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

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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