Why Yahoo’s Not Going To Steal The Search Default For iPhone Away From Google

Apparently, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer wants to be the default search for Apple’s Safari browser on iPhone and iPad and has been preparing to make a solid pitch. Well, we all want things we can’t have, and I’d be incredibly surprised if Yahoo got its wish here.

Kara Swisher over at Re/code has the scoop, in her Marissa Mayer’s Secret Plan to Get Apple to Dump Google and Default to Yahoo Mobile Search story. Be sure to read that. Here, I’m going to share the incredibly tough list of obstacles that would have to be overcome to turn this from a fantasy into reality.

Yahoo Has No Search Technology

yahoo-purple-y-logoThe biggest challenge Yahoo has is that it lacks any solid search technology. Sure, Yahoo has some for very specialized things. But the core technology to sift through billions of pages across the web and ferret out relevant results? Yahoo gave all that up as part of its deal with Microsoft years ago.

Apparently, as Swisher reported earlier this year, Yahoo has two plans called Fast Break and Curveball intended to restore Yahoo’s technical chops when it comes to search — and in a matter of months. That’s pretty far-fetched.

In the years since Yahoo last did search, the amount of information to comb through on the web has increased — meaning much more noise to draw signal from. Meanwhile, potential employees serious about web search have long ago decamped to Google and Bing. Both those companies have huge teams involved in running mature search operations. Despite some Yahoo hires, there’s been no signs the company is drawing anywhere near the staffing that Google or Bing has.

Similarly, there’s been no signs that Yahoo is out busy crawling the web in order to build an index of all those pages — and that’s one of the things you want to do fairly soon, to ensure that you can not only store everything but also have good algorithms to pull the good stuff out in response to a search.

Some might think that Yahoo doesn’t need to do as big a job as Google or Bing does. Maybe it just needs to focus on answering popular questions. That, however, overlooks the fact that if Yahoo can’t answer virtually every question tossed at it, consumers will get frustrated. For all the talk about mobile search, contextual search, popular answers, predictive search, local listings, it’s web search that remains the core foundation that everything is built off of. If you don’t have that foundation, everything can topple over.

Yahoo Could Use Bing’s Technology…

bing-ads-600The reason Yahoo can even operate as a search engine right now is because it gets its search foundation from Microsoft’s Bing. When you search on Yahoo, you’re searching really with Bing, though Yahoo dresses the results up here and there, sometimes inserting some of its own specialized search content in places.

Yahoo has deals that let it provide search for others, and since that means it is using Bing’s technology for some of that, presumably it could power the search for Apple. Presumably, even without building its own search technology, it could just try to convince Apple that it should be the default in Safari on iOS over Google.

But Why Not Use Bing?

The problem with this scenario is that Microsoft isn’t just going to sit by and let Yahoo nab an Apple deal. It’s going to fight for that, as well. In fact, Microsoft already has been fighting for that and is ahead in Yahoo in the sense that it was given a “try-out” to become the Safari default when it was made the default for Siri last year. For more on this, see our past article:

If you’re Apple, and you’re seriously thinking about dumping Google for another player, it makes a heck-of-a-lot more sense to go with Microsoft which has already been proving itself, and which owns the Bing technology first-hand, rather than Yahoo which merely leases the Bing technology.

Especially if Microsoft is offering to pay as much or more than Yahoo.

And Why Not Stay With Google?

google logo - basic 570x270The bigger issue in all this is that dumping Google is not an easy move for Apple to make. For all Steve Jobs talked about doing thermonuclear on Google, he kept renewing those search deals. And the search deals have continued to be renewed.

The renewals happen because Google Search is excellent. That’s why I wrote in 2012 that Apple, rather than blowing up some Google deal, would rather try to go a “containment” route and move people more into Siri, which eventually might lead to a Safari change:

There’s an excellent chance that if Apple switched the default search in Safari on iOS to Bing, people would freak out asking where Google was. Sure, they could change the default. But it would still put Apple in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why it chose not the best search engine to use as a default but rather one based on competition issues. That’s not something you want to do, when you’re a company known for creating great products that keep the user in mind.

All this was before the “Mapgate” of 2013, where Apple really did dump Google as a maps partner for a weaker Apple product. The result was Apple had to apologize for pushing an inferior product on consumers. It took a PR beating. And it likely learned that it had to be incredibly careful about trying to just dump Google in the future.

Apple did successfully pulled off a switch with Siri shifting to Bing over Google, as I wrote last year:

Last year’s “Mapgate” is unlikely to become this year’s “Binggate.” The results are about the same. Rather, I suspect if they’re unhappy with responses, they’ll just assume that’s because Siri is an imperfect tool, trying to guess as to where to get the right answers and not always getting that right.

Still, changing the Safari default would be more dramatic than changing Siri. It also means that Apple would have to hope that Bing would produce as much revenue as Google makes per search. Or get some strong guarantees, because as Yahoo found, Bing doesn’t make as much.

A Win That Might Help Google

Let’s say against all odds, Yahoo wins the Safari deal. That might not help Yahoo as much as you think, nor might it hurt Google.

Consider what happened to Google after it was forced out of powering the Maps and Video apps on iOS. The result was that huge numbers of people deliberately sought out and downloaded Google’s own Google Maps and YouTube apps as soon as they launched. They continue to be high in the charts today, ranking 14 and 15, at the moment:

People shifting to those apps give Google a direct connection to them on iOS, arguably a stronger connection than it had before. Only with great difficulty, and consumer outcry, could Apple dump those apps.

Now notice that arrow pointing down to the Google Search app, currently ranked 28th. When the Google Search app was approved in October 2012, with Siri-like voice search, it rose to around 50 on the charts before dropping back to around 100, at the time the revamped version came out in March 2013 with Google Now support.

After Google Now, the app saw no great pickup until August 2013, according to stats from App Annie, for iPhone in the US:

What changed is unclear, but by October 2013, the Google Search app was staying solidly in the top 50. Things like “OK Google” voice activation added in November 2013 and Google Maps integration added in December 2013 probably helped.

There are still plenty of people with no incentive to use the Google search app because they’re happy with how search works in Safari. But a shift to a non-Google powered Safari search, if not done right, or just not well-received, could send many more to Google Search.

Also, those searches done with the Google search app should, to my understanding, mean pure profit for Google with no revenue share to Apple, unless there’s some provision in the secret deal between the two. A deal, by the way, that might not even be open for change to a new provider yet.

The TL;DR Summary

So, Yahoo’s going to gain the search default in Safari? Anything’s possible, but that seems unlikely because:

  • Building new search technology from scratch is hard
  • Using Bing’s technology isn’t a better pitch to Apple than using Bing itself
  • Apple doesn’t want to risk a repeat of Mapgate with Searchgate
  • Spending whatever to gain the new share might not pay-off in the long-term, if people go to Google anyway

For the record, Yahoo said it had nothing to say about plans to develop its own search tech or to pitch Apple on being the default.