4 Tips for Yahoo!

There were no unicorns, pixie dust sprinklings, or magical lawn gnomes attending Yahoo!'s (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) quarterly conference call last night.

Shareholders and analysts knew exactly what they were getting themselves into when they decided to tune in to Yahoo!'s third-quarter numbers, just days after sexier rival Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) posted another blowout report.

Yahoo!'s quarterly reports over the past couple of years have become little more than just Google afterparties. It's the place to go as the evening winds down, and you want to chat about the killer soiree you just attended. A few drinks later -- if you're lucky -- you'll wake up without remembering what happened after Big G's blowout bash.

Let me make this easy for Yahoo!. I've got a few tips for CEO Carol Bartz to get this right next time.

1. Be honest
Don't tell investors -- as you did during last night's earnings release -- that your company is making "substantial progress" toward your strategy of "resuming revenue growth" now.

You're not.

Revenue before traffic acquisition costs clocked in at $1.12 billion, a smidgeon below where the company was a year ago.

Be blunt. Don't tell investors -- as you did during last night's call -- that a company needs to walk before it can run and ultimately fly. On a top-line basis, Yahoo!'s shoes are bolted to the floorboards.

The goal of improving profitability is on track, though. Earnings after backing out a one-time gain on the sale of HotJobs to Monster Worldwide (NYSE: MWW  ) came in at $0.16 a share, comfortably ahead of last year's showing. Free cash flow dipped 3% to $250 million, but why rain on the improving margins?

Investors don't like being had. I remember early in 2008, when then-CEO Jerry Yang established ridiculous growth targets for 2009 and 2010. He was trying to shake off Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) buyout attempt and save his hide.

He succeeded on the former but got nailed on the latter.

2. Stop buying back shares
If you're as sick of the chatter of private equity buying out Yahoo! and AOL (NYSE: AOL  ) -- and putting AOL CEO Tim Armstrong at the helm -- stop making it easy to acquire Yahoo!.

Through the first nine months of the year, Yahoo! has spent more than $1.7 billion to buy back 7% of the shares outstanding. Fewer shares will help milk more out of every profit on a per-share basis, but it will also make it that much cheaper to complete a buyout.

Yes, if nobody is buying shares of Yahoo! it may as well be you, but you've burned through more than $1 billion of the $4.5 billion in cash and marketable securities you had at the beginning of the year.

3. Go shopping for head-turning acquisitions
Another reason to hold on to your greenery is that it's that you'll probably need every penny if you want to go shopping to offset the organic malaise.

I like most of Yahoo!'s recent acquisitions. From Associated Content to Dapper, I get it. The puzzle pieces fit in the bigger picture. However, if you want to stick around as CEO, you're going to have to make deals that Wall Street will notice.

Groupon and Zynga won't come cheap. Twitter may be out of your price range. However, Travelzoo (Nasdaq: TZOO  ) and OpenTable (Nasdaq: OPEN  ) are doable. Investors seem to like those two. They've doubled in value this year and open the door to healthier monetization than you're usually used to through your high-traffic empire.

4. Be the opening act
Finally, stop reporting quarterly results less than a week after Google. You can't grow in its shade.

Light a fire under bean counters and report a few days ahead of Google. Even if it means that the world's leading search engine is going to humiliate you when it comes around, you would be setting the tone for the online advertising industry.

Don't settle for being the after party, when you know that Google is a hard act to follow.

Be the party.

Do you have any advice for Bartz? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Google and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Google and OpenTable are Motley Fool Rule Breakers selections. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Google, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz wonders if Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz regrets her decision to lead Yahoo!. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy, and it's got mail.


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