In his first quarterly conference call as Yahoo's new chief executive, Scott Thompson shared few details on how he will turn around the company, but said tapping its vast trove of user data will be key to the Internet giant’s resurgence. He also hinted that Yahoo’s rebound could be fueled by pushing into areas the company has not previously pursued.
Thompson also reiterated that the strategic review process Yahoo adopted in the wake of Bartz’s departure was ongoing, but offered no further insight into the possible sale of the company’s Asian assets -- its stakes in Alibaba Group and Yahoo Japan -- or any other units. “The company remains open to anything that’s good for our shareholders,” he said.
Reporting fourth-quarter results Tuesday, Yahoo showed little progress to close out 2011. Net revenue for the Web portal fell 3% from a year ago to $1.17 billion on weaker sales in both its display and search advertising businesses. Gross revenue of $1.5 billion was down 13% from a year earlier.
The company's quarterly profit dropped 5% to $296 million -- or 24 cents per diluted share -- from $312 million, or 24 cents a share, a year ago. The earnings figure matched Wall Street analysts’ consensus forecast, but net revenue of $1.17 billion was slightly below analysts’ expectation of $1.21.After reporting flat growth in the third quarter, the company’s display ad revenue failed to improve in the fourth quarter -- dropping 4% from a year ago to $546 million, excluding fees paid to partners.
Tim Morse, who has resumed his post as chief financial officer at Yahoo after serving as interim- CEO since September, said display results fell $15 million below the company’s revenue targets, partly because of slowness in the European market. He also noted that pricing for premium advertising on Yahoo was down from a year ago.
A Macquarie Research study found that display trends on Yahoo remained weak in the fourth quarter, with the use of oversized/custom ad units -- which command premium CPMs compared to traditional placements -- falling to 26% of days in the fourth quarter, from 32% in the prior quarter and 34% in the year-earlier period.
Search revenue, minus expenses, fell 3% in the quarter to $344 million. That marked an improvement, however, over the 13% drop in the prior quarter. Morse said Yahoo and Microsoft continue to work on their search partnership, making several improvements that led to RPS (revenue per search) growth in the mid-to-high single digits.
He noted that the enhancements to Microsoft's AdCenter advertising platform led to increased search ad clicks, especially on critical holiday retail dates like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Yahoo and Microsoft had previously extended the RPS guarantee through which Microsoft makes up the shortfall in expected Yahoo search revenue to March 2013.
Yahoo is still struggling to make headway against Google, however. Its query volume dropped from 15.1% in November to 14.5% in December, according to comScore data. Yahoo and Bing’s combined December search share of 29.6%, however, was down from 30.1% in November and 30.0% in October. Google increased its share 0.5% in December to 65.9% from the prior month.
Both Morse and Thompson acknowledged that Yahoo needs to do better in both display and search to increase overall revenue. The company’s current outlook calls for flat growth, with net revenue projected for the first quarter in the range of $1.03 billion to $1.11 billion. Meanwhile, eMarketer projects that U.S. online advertising will grow 23% to $39.5 billion this year.
Thompson said a tighter focus on customers -- both consumers and advertisers --along with capitalizing on the data from Yahoo’s 702 million users globally would serve as the two “fundamental building blocks” for the company’s revitalization.
While he did not elaborate, he indicated during the Q&A with analysts that leveraging data to better predict a user’s interests would help entice people to spend more time on the site. That in turn would encourage advertisers to spend more with Yahoo.
Thompson also emphasized that he will take a balanced approach to running Yahoo, acknowledging that it is both a media and technology company. “We must do both, end of discussion.” Asked about potential M&A activity, he suggested Yahoo would move aggressively, when appropriate, to acquire technologies or assets it does not have internally.
In regard to Yahoo’s recent efforts to sell its own properties, Thompson said he’s been very involved in the process but didn’t comment on any potential deals.
Recent reports have centered on negotiations to sell its Asian investments -- a 40% stake in Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Group and a 35% stake in Yahoo Japan -- to focus on its core U.S. operations. The sales could bring in an estimated $17 billion.
Analysts have speculated that Yahoo co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang stepping down from the board last week, as well as leadership positions at Alibaba and Yahoo Japan, could smooth the way for completing the Asian transactions.