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Monday, January 09, 2012

Yahoo Struggles With Content

First appeared in the Wall Street Journal
Ousted Yahoo Inc. Chief Executive Carol Bartz faced a plight all too familiar to many of her peers: Making money off digital content isn't easy and it's getting harder.

As Web traffic explodes, Internet companies are struggling to profit off ads shown next to the articles, videos and other content offered to viewers.

It's a simple rule of any market. The more information that is created, the more the value is reduced. And despite attempts to woo spending with bigger, bolder and more targeted ads, services that help consumers navigate that content, namely search, remain the big money makers online.

"People tell me that content is king, but that is not true at all," says Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategy and innovation officer at Vivaki, the digital-media unit of Publicis Groupe SA. "Most people make money pointing to content, not creating, curating or collecting content."

Internet pioneers Yahoo and AOL Inc. are losing out to Facebook Inc. and Google Inc., both of which are adept at helping point the way to pertinent or interesting material. As a result, Yahoo and AOL are getting left behind in the fast-growing U.S. market for online advertising, which ballooned 20% to $31.3 billion from 2010 to 2011, according to eMarketer.

Yahoo and AOL's shares of the overall U.S. online advertising market will drop to 11% and 2.7% in 2011, respectively, according to the research from, down from 16.1% and 4.4% in 2009.

Their businesses have been plagued by a range of missteps that extend far beyond their current regimes. Both were slow to recognize the appeal of social-networking and to update their once dominant email services to compete with new rivals.

Excessive turnover and extensive bureaucracies have strained their relations with Madison Avenue, say advertising executives. Ms. Bartz recently attributed Yahoo's weaker-than-expected ad sales to heavy turnover among advertising executives.

Yahoo said in a statement that the company has been meeting with advertisers and agencies who say they excited by the advertising opportunities at the company. A spokesman for AOL declined to comment.

A few years ago, scale virtually guaranteed profits if Internet companies had relationships with marketers, as there were few sites that could deliver large audiences to advertisers. But advertisers now can turn to a wide range of competitors to reach a similar number of people, and that has pushed down the amount of money they spend on those sites and the price for ad rates on the portals.

"What do Yahoo and AOL bring? In fact, they don't bring all that much," said Rob Norman, chief executive of WPP PLC's GroupM North America, who says marketers view them as large quantities of mostly commoditized inventory. "Just because you have a lot doesn't mean that you have something that is of distinct value."

Pricing trends across both properties vary depending on where the ads appear, advertisers say, but overall rates aren't rising fast enough to compensate for meager to flat traffic growth. In the second quarter, AOL's revenue fell 8.4% from the year earlier to $542.2 million.

Yahoo's revenue fell 23% to $1.3 billion.

The average cost to reach one thousand views across both Yahoo and AOL sites has fallen steadily in the past year, ad executives say. At Yahoo, that rate dropped to an average $6.50 in July 2011 from $7.65 in July 2010, while at AOL, that rate dropped to an average of $7 in July 2011 from $9.45 in July 2010, according to SQAD WebCosts. Back in July of 1998, Yahoo was fetching about $25 per thousand. A Yahoo spokeswoman said their internal data isn't consistent with WebCosts' data.

Some companies have responded by cutting back the number of ads to boost their value. AOL stripped ads off several of its marquee sites in recent years, including, its fashion site Stylelist and movie site Moviefone to make room for more premium advertising.

Both AOL and Yahoo are under pressure from "advertising exchanges," the lingo for services that allows advertisers to bid for ad space across a multitude of properties that reach a particular type of user. Increasingly, marketers will turn to the advertising exchanges directly to buy high volumes of cheap online ads instead of negotiating with big publishers like Yahoo and AOL for more expensive ads.

In addition, marketers can target those ads bought via exchanges directly to people who are likely to be interested in their product or service, regardless of the context of the site where they appear. That gives the big portals less bargaining power, advertisers say. Yahoo runs a major exchange but the business isn't growing fast enough to restore overall revenue growth.

While it's a juggernaut, Facebook isn't immune from the problem of expanding inventory. Advertisers say most ad rates on the social network remain low, as its growing traffic leads to a proliferating number of pages it can show ads on.

"Sometimes there is an irrational desire to be involved with things that are just on upswings," says Mr. Norman. "The value of (marketing on Facebook) may be open to some questions."

Smaller publishers are also feeling the changing economics acutely. News sites such as Salon and Slate aren't consistently profitable. Upstarts like the Daily Beast have yet to reach profitability though executives say the three-year-old site is ahead of its pace. Slate last month laid off a handful of editorial staffers, citing unexpected "head winds" in advertising.