Yahoo! and Google: who will win?

posted 07 November 2007, updated 07 November 2007

This is something I get asked with reasonable frequency by people who are not in the web industry.

Pay close attention, because this is confusing: Google's new Chinese homepage (or a possible one) looks a lot like Yahoo! used to look (although the current Yahoo! China is a bit more elaborate). Meanwhile, Yahoo.cn looks quite a lot like iGoogle. Furthermore, China's home-grown, market-leading Baidu looks an awful lot like Google's US homepage, which has also been copied by Yahoo! Search.

What does this tell us about these companies, and the web? Who's copying who? Who's the real innovator? Which is the real best web page: a simple search (Google US, Yahoo! Search), a customized search portal (iGoogle, Yahoo.cn), or a full-on portal (Yahoo! US, the new Google China)? Who, in short, is going to win?

The obvious answer is: nobody. There is no "best" homepage. Portals like Yahoo! have had a place since the birth of the web, and always will. Google gained popularity (even when Yahoo! owned a big chunk of Google, and was using search results supplied directly by Google) because there is also a big market for pure search. Both Google and Yahoo! have experimented with hybrids, too: iGoogle was significantly preceded by My Yahoo! -- My Yahoo! is a more portal-ish version, while iGoogle is more search-ish, in keeping with the core competencies of both companies.

The truth of the matter is that neither company has the final solution. The web is a wonderfully heterogeneous place, and no single way of doing things is every going to satisfy everybody. That's why, as Google gets older, the two companies are increasingly resembling each other: at the core, a money-fountain of ad dollars, and around that an ever-growing ecosystem of small properties and failed experiments and indispensible utilities (plus some useless ones) which contribute mind-share and some revenue but are, fundamentally, just dancing in the money fountain.

Google is seen as fast-moving and Yahoo! as slow, and that's true, but that's not some fundamental cultural difference, it's just that Google was young and Yahoo is, by web standards, as old as they come. As Google has got older their capacity for innovation and the speed at which they can change has slowed and approached that of Yahoo!.

And it's not just search-versus-portal. Remember when Google released Gmail, and the world went nuts over what was just a new interface to web mail? It was -- and is -- a great product. But it didn't fundamentally change the game: three years later, Y!Mail still has 47% market share to GMail's 9%. Because it turns out people like webmail that looks like, and works like, the email they were used to on their desktop -- Outlook express. But some people (like me!) love GMail's different, tag-based interface.

And another thing about GMail: when's the last time you heard people talking about how much they loved a new Google product? The initial Google reader was a failure, there's still almost nobody who knows what Google base is for, and iGoogle was a whisper, not a bang. These days a Google launch is as common -- and as unremarkable -- as a Yahoo! launch, because they both have so many products.

So what's the big difference? Why is their stock price up 500% in 5 years while we stay unchanged? One big reason: a bigger money fountain. Google is executing better on ads right now. They make more more money than we do! Of course their stock price should be higher. But the P/E of YHOO and that of GOOG is almost exactly the same (currently, about 58).

The market, in effect, thinks our ability to earn money in future is about the same -- and they're right, we're in the same market. Google makes more, but the fundamentals are the same. The difference is volume, not anything qualitative. If we Yahoos -- as we are in the process of doing -- get bigger and better at distributing ads online, then our earnings will grow and our stock price will rise. It's simple as that. We don't have to reinvent ourselves.

Google and Yahoo! are two companies doing the same thing. Like, say, Toyota and Honda. One can do better than the other, but there will never be a day when Toyota conquers the car market. Neither will win, but the competition will be fun to watch, and everyone will get better cars -- and search results -- as a result. Long live Google, and long live Yahoo!.

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