Executive summary:  Google became a “Must Have” service to its users and customers and is reaping huge financial benefits. Yahoo! is a “Nice to Have” product and is suffering in mediocrity. Read on.

Using “Must Have” and “Nice to Have” as an analysis framework yields insight into more than tangible products. It can be applied to services. Lets apply it to two well know Internet companies Google (www.google.com, Nasdaq: GOOG) and Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com, Nasdaq: YHOO ). Can the Must Have, Nice to Have model explain their different outcomes? We will see that their very different situations, as measured by stock price or market capitalization, are due to Google being a Must Have product with stellar financial performance, while Yahoo! is in the doldrums.

Both are publicly traded companies. I will use an honorific notation to refer to them – their stock tickers. I will now refer to Yahoo! as YHOO and Google as GOOG. These companies have passed an important milestone – an IPO (initial public offering) – and have earned the right to be referred to by their stock tickers on the exchange where they trade.

Both YHOO and GOOG were started in dorm rooms or labs at Stanford University. YHOO was started first, initially offering a directory guide to sites on the web. It earned its YHOO moniker when it “IPO-ed” on 4/12/1996.  YHOO grew by continuing to add Web sites to its human created web catalogs. It also started creating content, adding properties as it grew associated with different topics or services. Do you remember their Auto, My Yahoo, Finance, Mail, Photo, Sports, etc, properties? All of these served as vehicles for YHOO  to earn advertising dollars by presenting a display ads (click to learn more) to visitors.

GOOG was formed about five years later, and it focused on providing automated web search to find information. Early leaders in this field were  AltaVista.com, Excite.com, Go.com, Inktomi.com, and others. By 1999 Google was building an underground fan base where I live in Silicon Valley. Its results were much better than their competitors. Their “Secret Sauce” was their PageRank algorithm. The company’s reputation exploded, so did its user base. The company earned its GOOG symbol when it IPO-ed on 8/19/2004.  Since then YHOO’s market cap has droped about 50% from about $40B to $18.8B  (this post is being written on 9/15/2011). GOOG has increased almost 6x from roughly $30B at the time of its IPO to today’s $175.2B market cap.

The graph below shows how GOOG has increased in market cap while YHOO has declined.

GOOG was able to leverage its ability to deliver superior search results to generate revenue by serving up relevant ads. They have been able to get advertising clients to compete against each other and pay higher prices in order to have their ads displayed at the top of the page. Using the auction market process known as “search advertising” – GOOG maximizes its income by selling display locations on multiple places on the page. There is even more benefit for GOOG – if a person actually clicks a link to go to the advertisers site then GOOG can charge even more. GOOG has perfected “cost per impression” and “cost per click” advertising models.

Similar beginnings, yet one company is worth ten times the other. What happened? Why did YHOO’s value shrink 50% while GOOG’s increased almost 600% in the same time period?

GOOG delivered much better results and the world quickly noticed. Better results and a large and rapidly growing user base enabled GOOG to offer contextually relevant advertising. This enabled them to serve up relevant ads vs. YHOO broad-stroke, poorly targeted display ads. Why? Search terms are indicators of intent. If someone entered a search query like “toyota camry vs. ford fusion reviews” into GOOG’s search engine, then it is a very good bet to infer that searcher is interested in cars, shopping, and these two brands. Thus GOOG could serve up relevant ads for auto dealerships, magazines, insurance, etc.

This is my explanation for their different outcomes: GOOG became as Must Have web service, while YHOO became (or maybe stayed as) a Nice to Have service. GOOG is Must Have for people searching for information on the web, and it is also Must Have for companies looking to deliver relevant advertising to potential customers at the time that they are searching for related information. YHOO is stuck with display ads, a crude and imprecise way of displaying ad. Display ads are the web’s billboards – things we look at once or twice and then our brains filter them out forever.

We live in a market economy. GOOG is valued over 10x more than YHOO because of the value it delivers to its community. Being a “Must Have” product delivers significant financial benefits over being a “Nice to Have” product. Its too bad for YHOO shareholders that its management team didn’t understand this.


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