With “Fast Break” and “Curveball,” Mayer Is Aiming to Bring Back Search Tech to Yahoo
According to numerous sources inside Yahoo, CEO Marissa Mayer has ordered up two under-the-radar initiatives — well, not to me and now you! — that could potentially get the company back into algorithmic search as well as search advertising.
The internal code names for the efforts — which are not actually being done together, though they are in tandem — are borrowed from sports. In this case, basketball and baseball: Projects Fast Break and Curveball, respectively.
Sources said the plan is being done as part of a contemplation of how Yahoo can accelerate the end of — or actually end — its longterm search and advertising partnership with Microsoft. Currently, Yahoo only has control over the search experience, but Mayer clearly wants more purview over the business.
Fast Break and Curveball involve a number of top Yahoo execs, including Laurie Mann, SVP of search products; Adam Cahan, SVP of mobile and emerging products; and Jay Rossiter, SVP of platforms. (If SVP of ad tech Scott Burke shows, it’s a party — not a fun one exactly, but it is what it is in Sunnyvale these days).
Sources said Mayer has put a priority on the projects — a three- to four-month time frame — which could eventually result in a full search engine, possibly more oriented to mobile than the desktop, where Yahoo once played big.
That makes sense, especially since Yahoo’s share of search has continued to decline. Most recently, according to comScore, it fell to 10.8 percent, down 0.4 percent from November to December in the U.S. market. Meanwhile, Google’s share rose to 67.3 percent and Microsoft to 18.2 percent.
It has been thus since former CEO Carol Bartz got Yahoo out of the search technology business in 2009, in favor of the Microsoft deal that was called the Yahoo & Microsoft Search Alliance. Under the 10-year agreement, Microsoft’s Bing search engine provides the search technology on Yahoo, as well as the search-advertising technology.
It also includes revenue-per-search guarantees, the latest of which is set to expire in March (it could be renewed as before). The income from search has become important to Yahoo, which said in a recent regulatory filing that 31 percent of its revenue came from its search deal, much higher than had previously been thought by investors.
That puts Yahoo in a vulnerable position in terms of controlling its destiny, and it has been an issue with Mayer for a while, who has tried various legal means to exit some of its search commitments with Microsoft.
For example, Yahoo tried and failed to delay the transition of paid search in Taiwan and Hong Kong, via complex legal fighting. As I noted in a post in November about the issue: “In other words, despite leaking all over the place that CEO Marissa Mayer wanted to get out of the search partnership with Microsoft (and she still might want to), Yahoo’s not getting out of the rollout globally. Yet!”
Yet, indeed, Mayer has made no secret internally of her disdain for the deal, despite public utterances supporting it.
In its legal efforts, by the way, Yahoo used the excuse of the Microsoft CEO transition as one of its arguments for the delay. That will soon be fixed, as longtime Microsoft exec Satya Nadella is likely to be taking that job soon.
Interestingly, thanks to a stint at Microsoft’s Online Services division at the time of the initial Yahoo deal, Nadella is very familiar with it and should be able to go toe-to-toe with Mayer, who ran search products — though not the technology — at Google.
Whether she can slip out of the deal will be interesting, as will any efforts to revive search at Yahoo. It has lost a lot of its core team in the area. Here Mayer has tried to bulk up, as well as with its research efforts.
By the way, since I am sports-deficient, Wikipedia tells me that a fast break is an offensive strategy in basketball: “In a fast break, a team attempts to move the ball up court and into scoring position as quickly as possible, so that the defense is outnumbered and does not have time to set up.”
It is also apparently a Reese’s candy bar (“peanut butter and soft nougat covered in deliciously rich milk chocolate”).
A curveball — I do know this one — is a spinny pitch.
So, let the games begin.