Kara Swisher

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Exclusive: Is Yahoo Japan Poised to Switch to Google Search?

Please see this disclosure related to me and Google.

In what would be a stunning blow to the massive search alliance between Microsoft and Yahoo, Google is apparently zeroing in on a deal to grab the algorithmic search business for Yahoo Japan, said several sources.

The agreement between Yahoo Japan and the U.S. search giant could be announced as early as today in Japan, sources said, and could be part of a larger deal between the two companies around mobile or other products.

Financial terms of such a deal were unclear.

News of the deal could come when Yahoo Japan announces its financial results at 3:10 pm Japan time on July 27, which is 11:10 pm PT today.

If Google (GOOG) and Yahoo Japan join together, the pair will control almost the entire market share of search in the Japanese market. It is not clear whether or not paid search is part of this deal at this time.

But in search query volume, Yahoo Japan currently has just over a 53 percent share of the search market and Google has just over 38 percent.

It is a monopoly in comparison to Microsoft, which has almost a three percent share.

Yahoo Japan is not actually owned by Yahoo, which holds a 35 percent stake. SoftBank Corp. has a stake of around 40 percent.

Both SoftBank Founder Masayoshi Son–one of the first key investors in Yahoo–and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang sit on the board of Yahoo Japan, which is operated independently and run by President and CEO Masahiro Inoue.

When Yahoo (YHOO) and Microsoft (MSFT) struck their wide-ranging search and online advertising partnership last year, Yahoo Japan–which now uses Yahoo technology for algorithmic search–was free to pick whatever search service it wanted.

That meant it was not obligated to use Microsoft’s Bing technology, which will be powering Yahoo in the U.S. by the end of the year, as well as in many other countries where Yahoo operates.

But, because Yahoo Japan is its own entity, any such deal was to be negotiated among the parties, putting Yahoo Japan in play, much as if it were AOL (AOL) or News Corp. (NWS) unit MySpace in the U.S.

Both those companies signed search deals with Google–and both are also now up for renewal.

Coincidentally, Bing just entered the Japan market with its branded search, but it has only a small share there.

And, ironically, Yahoo Japan’s Inoue said in an interview in January with a Japanese news organization that he was not impressed with some other Google services, such as its Street View mapping service.

In any case, if Yahoo Japan and Google do buddy up, it’s clear that Microsoft will likely try to block the deal from gaining regulatory approval in Japan, much in the same way it did successfully when Google tried to enter into a deal with Yahoo in the U.S. in 2008.

That deal crashed and burned after government opposition became evident.

It will also be interesting to see which search technology the Alibaba Group, which owns Yahoo’s name in China and of which Yahoo itself owns 40 percent, will select or if it will do search on its own.

Like Yahoo Japan, Alibaba–which is using Yahoo’s search and email technology now–is also not obligated to switch to Bing when Yahoo does. Such a deal is also subject to negotiation.

That said, Google’s relations with China remain tense, which could play a role in any talks with Alibaba.

Emails and calls to spokespeople at Yahoo, Yahoo Japan and SoftBank seeking confirmation were not returned as yet. Microsoft declined to comment.


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