Calling for Yahoo to get bold

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Web traffic leader urged to fend off fast-closing rivals

January 29, 2008|By Jessica Guynn | Jessica Guynn,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO -- Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sramana Mitra captured a common sentiment in the title of a blog post last week: "Yahoo, Please Put Up a Fight."

As its growth slows, Yahoo Inc. has taken steps to reorganize its management structure, narrow its focus and jettison some underperforming businesses. But it's still being outmatched in search advertising dollars by Google Inc. and in user growth by social networks such as Facebook Inc., which are rapidly gaining members and advertisers.

Observers expect to see evidence of a widening gap between Google and Yahoo this week, when the two companies report fourth-quarter financial results.

It seems everyone - former employees, industry analysts, disgruntled investors - has an opinion about what Yahoo should do: lay off 20 percent of its work force, flee the search advertising business, even put itself on the auction block.

Mitra and many others in Silicon Valley are rooting for Yahoo to roar back and capitalize on its status as the Web's most popular destination, if for no other reason than to keep Google in check. But, she said, she's not optimistic.

"Yahoo has a great opportunity still because it has tremendous traffic and a tremendous brand," said Mitra, who posted her analysis on the popular technology blog GigaOM. "But it can't figure out what it wants to be when it grows up."

A clear vision that plays to the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company's fundamental strengths is what investors want from co-founder Jerry Yang, who replaced Terry Semel as chief executive over the summer. But instead of defining a bold road map, Yang offered broad strokes: Yahoo would aim to become the starting point for Internet users and a must buy for advertisers. It would also open up its technology to outside developers and publishers so it could dazzle consumers with more nifty features.

It was a start, but not enough to placate Wall Street. The investment Web site Motley Fool recently named Yahoo the "Worst Stock for 2008," predicting this could be the year it's overtaken by Google as the Web's most popular destination. Analysts have calculated that the sum of Yahoo's parts - in particular its investments in Asian Internet companies - is worth more than its current market value.

"Jerry Yang came in this summer with a strong overture for change, and we haven't seen much of that yet," American Technology Research analyst Rob Sanderson said.

It may be too early to judge turnaround efforts, though. Stanford Group analyst Clayton Moran recommended patience.

"For the past few years, the rapid emergence of Google and the fragmentation of the Internet have really driven Yahoo's underperformance," he said. "Give Jerry at least a year. Six months is not enough time to judge his ability and what he's done."

Jackson Securities analyst Brian Bolan says even though the company's reorganization hasn't delivered anything "new or earth-shattering," he sees positive signs that the "vultures" have finished off "the carcass that was last year."

By and large, analysts are expecting a solid fourth-quarter performance when Yahoo reports today - 11 cents a share of profit on $1.4 billion in revenue, fueled by modest gains in search and higher volume in display advertising.

Some analysts say Yahoo's management is quietly making progress that could bode well for earnings in 2008, including eliminating weak business units and hundreds of jobs. Still, many are concerned that the outlook it offers Wall Street will reflect an anticipated slowdown in the economy and consumer spending.

Yahoo declined to comment, noting the usual quiet period before its earnings announcement.

"This quarter is very important," said Anthony Valencia, media and entertainment analyst for TCW Group in Los Angeles. "You can only have so many quarters of disappointing results, and you can only ask so many times for investors to be patient."

Bottom line: Since Yang took over, Yahoo shares have lost 22 percent, closing at $21.94 Friday. Should they continue to fall, Yahoo could become a takeover target for private equity firms or strategic buyers such as Microsoft Corp. or News Corp., which have both kicked its tires before, analysts say.

Yahoo knows this is not a good time to falter. People close to the company say Yang and his team are working hard to speed up decisions and streamline operations to become more like the nimble innovator Yahoo once was.

"It's all well and good to have ideas, but people are looking for more than just ideas at this point," Standard & Poor's analyst Scott Kessler said. "People don't care about vision, they want to see results. So far the results have been mixed at best."

Jessica Guynn writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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