As a search engine, Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) has fallen to a distant third in the market, taking a paltry 11.1% share last month compared to Google's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) 66.9% and Microsoft's 18.1%. (Remember, though, that Bing still powers Yahoo! search, despite Yahoo!'s attempts to move away from its partnership with Microsoft.)
Not so long ago, Yahoo!'s steadily declining search traffic would have been a major concern -- after all, that's what Yahoo! is all about, right? Not anymore.
As expected, Yahoo! inked a deal on Monday for news icon Katie Couric to become its "global anchor." Signing a name like Couric is noteworthy in and of itself, but for Yahoo! and its shareholders, the deal epitomizes the vision of CEO Marissa Mayer. And combined with recent data from digital media research firm comScore, it's clear Yahoo!'s new direction is working.
A new direction
Overloading Yahoo!'s home page with loads of graphics and content, particularly before today's fast Internet connections, was nearly the end of the service as we know it. Google's clean, fast-loading site was the easy choice for users wanting quick search results minus all the clutter. Clearly, trying to be all things to all people wasn't working, though none of Yahoo!'s multiple CEOs in the past five years could seem to figure that out.
Whether you believe Mayer's on the right track or not, there's no denying she's at least pointing Yahoo! in very specific directions: mobile and content. As Mayer said recently, Yahoo! is about "entertaining," as the hiring of Couric and tech guru David Pogue would suggest. Based on last quarter's earnings, Mayer's emphasis on content has yet to pay off, but significant changes in corporate culture and direction take time.
Just ask AOL, which some time ago began a transition similar to the shift Yahoo! is undertaking. Recognizing that the days of dial-up connections were over, AOL has become a content-driven site -- a destination for users in search of news and entertainment. Yahoo! is still in transition, but its base of 800 million monthly average users, or MAUs, makes for a nice launching point. And Yahoo!'s focus on mobile is already paying off, with about half its MAUs accessing the site via a mobile device.
The good news
comScore measured the Web activity of desktop Internet users for October, and the results give Yahoo! bulls a couple of things to cheer about. First is the sheer volume of desktop Internet visitors heading to Yahoo! sites. For the month, Yahoo! edged out Google properties as the No. 1 Web destination, with 195.8 million visits compared to Google's 194.1 million. AOL, to its credit, was still in the hunt, garnering 120.1 million desktop visitors to take fifth place last month. This marks the fourth consecutive month that Yahoo! properties have garnered more visitors than Google properties.
Even more intriguing than the number of Yahoo! visitors in October were the top two reasons desktop users were scouring the Web. News and information, along with lifestyle Web destinations including categories like fashion and beauty, were far and away the most popular topics for desktop Internet users. Both topics are exactly what Yahoo! is focused on as it makes its transition to a content-driven destination. Score one for Mayer.
Final Foolish thoughts
Search remains a source of revenue for Yahoo!, and that's not going to change anytime soon. But Yahoo! needed to reinvent itself and its reliance on search traffic to drive growth. Otherwise, it faced a Google-sized mountain not worth climbing.
For mid- and long-term investors, it's Yahoo!'s commitment to content that will ultimately determine the company's success or failure. Given Yahoo!'s recent moves to bolster its "entertainment" lineup, combined with comScore's data indicating what Internet visitors are interested in, it looks like Yahoo! is on the right track at the right time.