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Meaningless Metrics? How Those Other Eyeballs Could Be Kingmakers
By Andrew Goodman, May 24, 2001

Canadian political party leadership conventions have traditionally been held in hockey arenas. If you're willing to watch for about ten hours of pointless commentary, grown men whispering into each others' ears, and hordes of brainwashed teenaged delegates waving placards and chanting in favor of the best looking or "coolest" candidate, there can be a few dramatic moments near the end. (In short, it's very much like watching a basketball game.)

To win a political party leadership convention, you must get a majority of the delegates' votes. Usually, this takes several "rounds," as the leading candidate typically wins only a plurality of the votes. Each "round," the last-place candidate is dropped from the ballot, and the race continues with another vote. Sometimes, the lowliest also-rans drop out voluntarily to speed things along. By the end of the day, a dramatic scene can unfold: the third and fourth place delegates may choose to "deliver" their supporters to the second place delegate. Supporters literally walk across the floor en masse before voting for their new choice, and therefore get to feel like "kingmakers" while the frontrunner leaves in defeat (and often in disbelief).

The Jupiter Media Metrix report (http://www.jup.com/company/pressrelease.jsp?doc=pr010514) of the top fifty Internet properties for April reminded me of all this. There AOL is, comfortably in the lead, with Microsoft second and Yahoo in third (which is really second, since Microsoft's unique visitor stats include customers seeking tech support for Windows and such).

Now Yahoo had 58 million unique visitors in the month, as compared to AOL Time Warner's 69 million. An insurmountable lead? Not when you consider that the Internet is still growing, that there continue to be very indecisive trends and many battles still to be won in the global economy outside the US, and of course the overlooked probability that the also-ran portals, as they drop like flies, could "deliver" their supporters to Yahoo. Granted, there is enormous overlap here, and many people are using several of these companies' online services in a given month. Still... in Excite's 28 million unique visitors, Lycos' 31 million, NBC Internet's 22 million, Disney Internet's 20 million, and Infospace's 19 million, there are probably millions of friends and supporters who could well contribute to Yahoo's power and influence in the portal leadership race.

For some of these, Yahoo merely needs to wait while things continue to shake out and consumers gravitate to it because it's still there. In the case of Excite, either Yahoo cuts a deal with them, or again, just waits until Excite is shut down and the eyeballs start spending more time on Yahoo.

If any serious dent is to be put in AOL's lead, however, Yahoo and Lycos would have to announce a blockbuster merger. Why compete when you can gang up on the big guy? But here again, Yahoo is likely to sit back and watch as Lycos burns its way into a precarious financial position, to the point where Terra Lycos' market valuation might make it ripe for takeover.

So, while there might be some truth to the argument that it's "game over" (http://clickz.com/article/cz.3782.html) for Yahoo (in the sense that a merger seems like an inevitable fate), with all due respect, Mr. Speaker, it's clear that the Honorable Member who chanted na-na-hey-hey-goodbye so prematurely needs to spend more time talking with his grass roots constituents to get a better sense of their loyalties.

Many analysts have compared the race for online eyeballs to the auto industry consolidation in the early part of the century. In a decade, the US went from having 5,000 car companies, to three - but from that point on, industry growth continued.

Maybe, but this doesn't really apply to the portal wars. There were never 5,000 companies seriously entered in this race, though it sometimes seemed like it. And while conventional wisdom might say that this was a battle over customers, in another sense it's been a battle for eyeballs. Allegiance first, profits later. Didn't Jim J. Cramer say it? Yahoo, Cramer spat with not a little contempt, is "a friend, not a business." But Jim, "like a good neighbor, State Farm is there." "Fly the friendly skies." Etcetera. Being perceived as a friend to the consumer must surely be half the battle. The other half, of course, is ramming your products into distribution channels so diabolical that the consumer cannot avoid them.

It's conventional wisdom to say that this eyeballs-first strategy was silly, and that the time has come to make profits or get out. But analysts used to yell the same thing at heavily-leveraged cable, wireless, and other companies. Of course, many of them succumbed to their debtloads. But the winners in these sectors are typically heavily leveraged for a much longer period than seems prudent for debt-averse folks like you and me. Many successful businesses - in particular, large utility companies - have been built by going deep into debt on capital spending to build the needed infrastructure to "trap" all those customers. Then one day, the corner turns, the subscriber assets are recognized in the markets for the assets they are, and wham, you have a powerhouse. An evil diabolical powerhouse, even.

Here's a thought. Interest rates have dropped. Instead of the overcautious "well, Yahoo has a billion dollars 'left' in the bank," way of thinking, why not "this would be a good time for Yahoo to take on about $4 billion in debt"? Think about how much industry dominance you could buy for $5 billion -- especially after a few more flameouts make themselves available for cheap takeover. And don't worry too much about debt. When you're big enough, like Chrysler was in the 1980's, something big like the government will always come along to bail you out.

To really get into this insanely gonzo spirit, Yahoo probably needs professional help. It needs to get in bed with some complete lunatics. Megalomaniacs. Hallucinating visionaries with deep pockets and a firm belief that there's always more where that came from. In short, "going Hollywood" by hiring media mogul Terry Semel as the new CEO was a great first step. More on the need-for-lunatics theory in my next Traffick Weekly commentary.

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