OK, this is getting ridiculous. Today, the race to acquire Yahoo! has become perhaps the weirdest merger contest in the history of the technology industry.
Consider the day’s string of increasingly absurd leaks, er, I mean reports about Yahoo’s activities. First, this afternoon Yahoo! announced it would begin a limited two-week test of Google’s search technology on the U.S. version of Yahoo.com. Then, this evening at 10:35 pm EST, the Wall Street Journal reported that Yahoo and AOL were “closing in on a deal to combine their Internet operations.”
Not be to be outdone, the New York Times reported minutes later that “News Corp. is in talks with Microsoft about joining in its contested bid for Yahoo,” proposing a deal to join Yahoo, Microsoft’s MSN and News Corp’s Fox Interactive Media division, home of the MySpace social network. (If the story wasn’t penned by the usually reliable Andrew Sorkin, it would be laughable.)
Here’s my take: Yahoo is getting increasingly desperate. After Steve Ballmer issued a three-week ultimatum to Yahoo on Sunday April 5, Yahoo realized its needed to break out all the stops to either a) get a sweetened offer from Microsoft or b) strike a deal of comparable value that avoids getting co-opted by the Evil Empire in Redmond.
The announcement to outsource a miniscule amount of its search inventory smacked of last-minute desperation. (I like Silicon Alley Insider but I totally disagree with Henry Blodget that this was a “brilliant move.”) Even if the test improved the effectiveness of Yahoo’s search results (which is no slam dunk), there’s no guarantee Yahoo would outsource enough of its inventory to produce a material return. In its press release Yahoo went out of its way to stress the transient nature of the deal, saying “the testing does not necessarily mean that Yahoo! will join the AdSense for Search program or that any further commercial relationship with Google will result.”
The deal talks are a whole other matter. But let’s be clear: These are not superior proposals. Still, even if the deals are inferior (i.e. Yahoo would be much better off merging with Microsoft than the much smaller and weaker AOL, to say nothing of the deal’s antitrust issues), or just off-the-wall (adding MySpace to an already complicated Microsoft-Yahoo combination seems like a one-way express ticket to merger hell), they give Yahoo leverage in its talks with Microsoft. More suitors, however unattractive they are, create the impression of enhanced value (it would be interesting to know the valuation that these deals give to Yahoo). So give Jerry Yang & Co. credit for being shrewd enough to lure AOL and News Corp onto the dance floor.
I said in the beginning of this process that Microsoft would have to sweeten its offer. Lately, as Ballmer & Co. showed increasing signs of aggressiveness and the unimpressiveness of Yahoo’s future plans began to materialize, I began to question myself. But Yahoo’s shucking and jiving today makes me think it just might happen.