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Monday, January 17, 2005

Yahoo to acquire Six Apart?

Six Apart, the owner of hosted blogging service TypePad and publisher of blogging software Movable Type, just acquired LiveJournal. Within six months Six Apart itself will be acquired by Yahoo!.

Here's why.

1. Blogs are the next market for pay-per-click ads.

Google and Yahoo!'s Overture division have generated stunning profits from pay-per-click (PPC) keyword ads on search results. But now they face a problem. Demand for PPC ads is growing faster than supply, which is determined by the growth in the number of searches. Demand for the ads is growing rapidly because advertisers can track the return on investment from PPC ads in real-time, since they can monitor conversion rates and  profitability per sale. So when an ad is profitable, advertisers bid for more ads. In some cases, advertisers' budgets are larger than they originally realized, because the profit from the ads is almost instantaneous and can be recycled into paying for more ads.

As a result, prices for PPC ads are rising. Google and Yahoo! like that, but they realize they could make a lot more money if the opportunity for PPC ads wasn't limited to search.

So Google came up with AdSense, which uses contextual matching to place PPC ads on content-based Web sites. Genius! Now the whole content-Web is suitable for PPC ads. Doesn't matter that Google splits the ad revenues with the Web site owners; Google's effective gross margin (net revenue minus cost) is still stellar. Overture followed, though it targeted large Web publishers (The Wall Street Journal) instead of automating the sign-up process to make it suitable for millions of small operators as Google did. (Perhaps Yahoo! underestimated the length of the long tail in Web publishing.)

Now ask yourself this. What is the fastest area of growth in Web content? Blogs. But it's important not to make an error here. Blogging services, whether hosted or downloaded, are not just about blogs as we know them now - personal online journals. They're about something broader: cutting the cost of, and simplifying the process of publishing content to the Web.

Because the blogging platforms are the largest generators of new Web content, they are a natural target for the providers of PPC ads. Many bloggers dislike the notion of advertising on blogs, but they're in for a shock. Blogger, TypePad, LiveJournal and the other blogging platforms will make it much easier for Web publishers to profit from ads. They'll build contextual ads into Web site templates, and use the publishers' sign-up information to open simultaneous advertising accounts.

Skeptical? Don't be. TypePad has already integrated the Amazon.com associates program into its TypeLists, and announced in November that it was partnering with contextual ad provider Kanoodle. It's only a matter of time before Google does the same with Blogger.

This is why it's so remarkable that Yahoo! has no blogging platform. Yahoo! owns Overture, the main competitor to Google's keyword ad business. Ad inventory is in short supply, Web content is the greatest source of untapped inventory, and blogs are the fastest growing area of Web content.  Google owns Blogger, Microsoft quietly announced recently that its blogging platform, MSN Spaces, just passed the 1.5 million user mark, and Yahoo! has... nothing.

That's the first reason why Yahoo! will acquire Six Apart. Now for the second.

2. Web publishing will be a necessary component of an integrated set of Web-based personal tools.

Google, MSN and Yahoo! are competing for users. They know that the best product generates user-dependency, is sticky, and attracts a lot of user time. Yahoo! and MSN discovered that Web-based email fits that description, and so does instant messaging. Yahoo! hopes that a page of RSS-driven content will do the same thing. MSN and Google will probably roll-out their own Web-based RSS-aggregators soon.

But here's the truth: the user-dependent, sticky, time-consuming application that these companies are driving towards isn't one of these, it's all of them together: an integrated suite of Web-based personal tools. It will encompass Web email, instant messaging, an address book, a page of RSS-driven content like My Yahoo!, a set of online bookmarks like del.icio.us, perhaps online management of music or other content, and... a blog for photo sharing and one-to-many communication. These tools will be tied together with social networking links. Your "about you" page, for example, could be automatically networked (with the right permissions) for job hunting and dating.

If there's any doubt about Microsoft thinking this way, here's a comment from Bill Gates' recent Gizmodo interview:

I think blogging is super-important and we've got to do a lot more software. The phenomena for us is we've got in beta this MSN Spaces thing, and it lets you leverage everything you do around Messenger—that's your buddy lists and those relationships—to set up blogs, and who has access, and who gets notified.

What does Yahoo! have in this collection of tools? Yahoo! Mail, My Yahoo!, and Yahoo! instant messenger. But no blogs. Quick comparison: Google has Gmail and Blogger, but no IM and no equivalent to My Yahoo! (yet). Microsoft has Hotmail, MSN Spaces, MSN Messenger, but no equivalent to My Yahoo! (yet).  So, as these companies assemble the complete bundle of integrated personal Web tools, the social networking sites will be acquired, del.icio.us will be acquired, and... Six Apart will be acquired.

Why won't Yahoo! just build its own blogging platform? First, because the serious blogs with the most readers - and thus the greatest PPC ad potential - have already been built with Blogger, TypePad or Movable Type. And second, because Yahoo! is far behind Google and Microsoft, and acquiring Six Apart would vault it to the front.

With its recently announced acquisition of  LiveJournal, Six Apart has 6.5 million users. All of them are likely lost to Overture ads and potentially lost to Yahoo!'s future bundle of personal Web tools.

Unless, of course, Yahoo! acquires Six Apart.

One further thought:
Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker published a thought-provoking and well-written report about blogs and RSS (PDF here). She argued that Yahoo! will be the big winner from syndicated content, making money wrapping ads around aggregated feeds or splitting ad revenue with small publishers.

I questioned her bullishness on Yahoo! on two grounds. First, Yahoo!'s market position in RSS aggregation isn't assured. (Recent data actually suggest that My Yahoo! has far smaller market share than Bloglines.) And second, niche Web sites will in fact take readers and advertising dollars from broader content aggregators like Yahoo!. (I'd call this the competitive impact of the long tail.)

This post now highlights another weakness in Yahoo!'s competitive position: Yahoo! seems to have underestimated the commercial importance of blogs, trails Google and MSN in the blogging market, and will end up being forced to acquire Six Apart in the near future for a handsome sum.

Lots of smart people (including Robin Good, Martin Tobias, John Battelle, Fred Wilson, Jeremy Zawodny, John Palfrey, Tony Perkins, Susan Mernit, Steve Rubel, and Michael Seneadza) complimented Mary's report. Perhaps they focused on her analysis of blogs and RSS and overlooked her specific claim about Yahoo!. That's OK: most were writing from a new media perspective, not an investment perspective.

But for investors in YHOO, getting this wrong could be costly.

Posted by David Jackson on January 17, 2005 at 08:30 AM in Sector Themes/Outlook, ticker: GOOG, ticker: MSFT, ticker: YHOO | Permalink

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Comments

You make a good case for Yahoo buying 6A. I've long thought that many of these services like delicious, bloglines, etc. woud be bought out but I never considered Six Apart as a target. Wouldn't it be interesting if Google took out Six Apart before anyone else could get to them? It would be a good way for them to 'protect' all those pages which are already part of Adsense.

Posted by: Michael | January 17, 2005 01:09 AM

I wonder if the strategy you propose is the best one.

It seems to me that if large sums of money are in play then the goal would be to search out and attract the best blogs. At this stage in the game very small incentives would get many on board and once the reputation of a particular set was good, that along with a share of future revenue would probably bring others.

With sets categorized in certain areas such as the financial, people would have a reasonably sized list to look at and with decent search engines focused on subsets the value of resources would increase.

While the concept of "let one million blogs blossum" is wonderful, I suspect the money is in sowing and developing those 10,000 that will attract readership and reputation.

But then again Yahoo has made no effort to do with this it's groups so the same approach may apply if they get into the blog business.

Posted by: david bennett | January 17, 2005 01:05 PM

Interesting prediction. An alternative, which I think is also a strong possibility, is that Six Apart is gearing up for its own IPO. I have a feeling they want to become one of the Big Guns - not Microsoft-big, but maybe long-term they want to be their own version of Yahoo!. So I guess which way they go will depend on what their long-term ambitions for the company are. I just have a feeling Mena Trott in particular wants Six Apart to grow into a BigCo (but I may be very wrong, and your Yahoo buy-out option may be right).

Also, interesting you mentioned del.icio.us. I named them my second-best Web 2.0 Small Company of 2004 (Ludicorp, makers of Flickr, were number 1) - even though del.icio.us is not a company...yet. But I think you're on the money that del.icio.us will be sold this year, because it's a fantastic service and has lots of potential.

ref: my post 'Best Web 2.0 Companies of 2004' at
http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/002609.php

Posted by: Richard MacManus | January 17, 2005 03:09 PM

It's a fasintaing agrument, I can only imagine
what the reaction would be to such a deal.

On a related note, did you know that Mark Fletcher, the CEO of
Bloglines sold ONElist to Yahoo! ONElist eventually became Yahoo! Groups.

I feel like Bloglines is the next to be bought up by someone, not sure
who though.

I wrote about Fletcher a bit in an article I wrote in September for an American Demographics on RSS titled "This Way App" - http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4021/is_7_26/ai_n6171189

I think you might find it interesting.

Posted by: Noah Brier | January 17, 2005 03:24 PM

On Six Apart going its own way and Bloglines:

Richard - Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree - the evidence suggests that Six Apart would rather go public as an independent company, since it just raised money and bulked up with the LiveJournal acquisition. But Yahoo! will have to make a move in the blogging space soon, and there will be some price that Six Apart will be happy to sell for...

Noah - V. interesting. Bloglines is probably an acquisition target as well, but has a much weaker competitive position. It's relatively easy to switch RSS readers, whereas blogging platforms are much stickier; and barriers to entry for Web-based RSS readers/aggregators are lower. I suspect that the ads that generate revenue will be the ones embedded within blogs themselves, not wrapped around them in Web-based RSS readers.

David

Posted by: David Jackson | January 17, 2005 04:07 PM

I'm not so sure about that. While I agree that it is quite easy to switch aggregators, Bloglines makes a great web-based, easy to use, aggregator. They have developed quite a following as is evidenced by it topping the FeedBurner stats. What is more, Bloglines has noted their plan to add advertising in the future, which will make them a very attractive company I would imagine. The amount of information they have on users intersts will allow them to target ads with a fair amount of precision.

I agree that there will embedded ads will be a big moneymaker, but I wouldn't count out Bloglines by any means.

Here's a quote from Fletcher from my article:

"Google has proved the model that if you're able to target advertising well and do it in a text ad, you can be successful," says Fletcher. "With Google, they have just a very little bit of information, just the keyword the user is searching for. We have a lot more info about a given user. We know what you're subscribed to and the items you've already read, for example."

Posted by: Noah | January 17, 2005 04:30 PM

But Yahoo is working, got a blogging service out for Korea. [http://kr.blog.yahoo.com/]

Posted by: vrikodhara | January 18, 2005 02:26 AM

My MSN ( http://my.msn.com ) counterpart of My Yahoo!

Posted by: Badi | January 18, 2005 03:35 AM

LiveJournal is a mediocre blogging engine. Its secret sauce is the social network. You can easily live your entire social life on LJ.

But when Six Apart bought LJ, there was a flurry of people setting up alternate journals.

Yahoo! has a known history of buying up things (Geocities, eGroups, Onelist), misunderstanding them and trashing them. They are clueless enough to buy LJ and destroy it.

I predict the greater technical minds on LJ will be working REALLY HARD on the cross-site authentication problem. There's been theoretical speculation in this direction before, but now there's a real possibility breathing down our necks.

Posted by: David Gerard | January 18, 2005 08:28 AM

Hooray! FUD is the grease that makes the Internet go!

Posted by: rone | January 18, 2005 02:28 PM

I guess speculation is fun (and good for hits), but it's worth noting that Yahoo already *has* a blog tool, and has for some time. And that we like being a blogging company. That's what we do.

Posted by: Anil | January 18, 2005 03:23 PM

The first place AdSense ads appeared was on Blogspot blogs. That was before they had a name, and right after Google bought Blogger. At some point this changed so ads only appear on your Blogspot blog if you sign up for AdSense. Perhaps this indicates that random blogs are not as suitable for PPC ads as Google originally thought.

Posted by: David | January 18, 2005 09:37 PM

omg! its bubble redux!!!
next we will see Terry Semel on
two consecutive covers of Fortune and the TOP will be in...again.

mj

Posted by: mj | January 18, 2005 10:55 PM

I'm assuming this is speculation only, since I didn't see any sources cited.

It would be rather ironic if Yahoo had no intention of doing this, but your post and the internet chatter which followed convinced them to do so. (I'm not saying that's going to happen, I'm also speculating.)

Of course, once the majority of the livejournal community gets wind of this blog entry, (some already have) there's going to be huge drama and poor Brad is going to get an earful for sure. Not a reflection on you, more a comment on how hysterical things can get on lj sometimes.(You should have seen it when the six apart thing was mentioned. People were freaking out, thinking their journals were going to be deleted, etc. It was quite amusing.

Anyway, I myself hope it doesn't happen, since I don't want to see ads and pop ups galore pollute my journal space, but I'm not exactly worrying about this being a sure thing just yet.

Posted by: jlw | January 19, 2005 08:08 PM

If Yahoo! gets its greasy paws on Six Apart, I'm gone from LJ. There are other journals elsewhere. Hopefully 99% of LJ users would feel the same, and Yahoo! would be left with exactly nothing, which would be what they'd deserve for a move like that (let them create their own blogging tool). Anyway, Six Apart could (and would) say no.

Posted by: Helen | January 20, 2005 09:10 PM

This is straight from SixApart - I emailed them and asked:

>
> No way! I've heard this rumor so many times it just makes me laugh now.
> I know our communities are new to each other, so it's a little weird when you hear rumors and you're not sure if they're true - but that's all it is, just a (completely unsubstantiated) rumor.
>
> Maybe you could read Raheli's post to further clarify any worries you might have.
> http://www.livejournal.com/users/rahaeli/
>
> Please, if you or anyone you know ever has questions, just let me know.
> I'm always here to ask.
>
> Thanks,
> Ginevra
> Six Apart

Posted by: Michelle | January 21, 2005 02:16 PM

More important: will Sixapart sel to yahoo?

Posted by: Seun Osewa | February 5, 2005 08:02 AM

We have these fixations with Yahoo, Google, etc. A lot of small techs are looking cheap, right now.

Posted by: George | April 14, 2005 02:23 PM

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