Kara Swisher

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Liveblogging Yahoo Q4 Earnings: "Encouraging" Is the New Black

BoomTown was looking over Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong as I blogged the conference call after Yahoo released its fourth-quarter earnings after markets closed today.

It’s pretty! But Yahoo’s revenue growth–still, not so much.

Let’s begin:

2:02 pm PT: Yahoo turned in earnings that were slightly better than expected, although no big shakes either, so the call was likely to sound exactly like the last several quarterly calls.

Bingo! We’re trying! It’s encouraging! You’ll see!

In fact, “encouraging” was just the word that CEO Carol Bartz used as she tried to focus on a doubling of operating income, operating margin and earnings per share.

Impressive, the revenue at Yahoo is still stubbornly not moving, which the company continued to attribute to the new search and online advertising partnership with Microsoft.

“This is all part of our plan to turn Yahoo around,” said Bartz, who added a new buzzword, “personalized content,” to its offerings.

She turned the call over to Yahoo CFO Tim Morse, who ran through the numbers, which pretty much came down to this: Display advertising up 16 percent from last year, while search revenue dropped 18 percent.

As in previous quarters, Morse talked about how “headwinds” will soon lessen and it will be smooth sailing for Yahoo ahead.

After the stormy seas of recent years, that would be nice, since investors have gotten pretty seasick owning Yahoo shares.

Morse offered that, “while there is still much to do, we are still executing well against our plan” and went on about how good things are.

Finally, we have a “unified purpose,” which he characterized as personalized content too.

It’s a nice new catchword for Yahoo, and I liked Morse’s strong tone and gumption, which for an accountant was like hollering.

His big Achilles’ heel: The revenues projections ahead remain soft.

2:24 pm: Back to Bartz, who focused on the future success of the Microsoft advertising alliance and also Yahoo’s leadership in display advertising.

She listed some big offline brands, such as Wal-Mart and Macy’s, noting when looking for online ads, “That’s right, they all came to Yahoo.”

Bartz moved on to its stake in China’s Alibaba Group and noted it was a “great investment with a bright future.” Translation: We are not selling for now.

But noting its investment in Yahoo! Japan, Bartz had a slightly different take, mentioning talks to “unlock” the value of the stake. Translation: Maybe we’ll sell if we can figure out how not to pay all those taxes.

Bartz did the same with all of Yahoo properties, putting a sunny spin on what is still a turnaround situation.

It’s a good strategy, but it is one that is starting to sound like a broken record, especially when Google, Facebook and others seem to be like a house on fire.

2:35 pm: Now on to Q&A, in which Wall Street analysts ask softball questions of executives.

And so they do, asking queries that include small details about its operating margin, questions on tiny changes in numbers due to accounting changes. And very little about larger strategy.

You can read about this stuff in the press release, but whatever.

I am thinking of starting an investment bank, so I can jump in on these calls and ask some questions that have actual substance.

The United Bank of Swisher? Goldman Sucks?

Ooh, I was wrong, because one analyst asked a good one about possible future layoffs.

Bartz noted the company would be adding people, um, after laying some employees off.

It’s all about “re-allocating” staff, which Yahoo did earlier today by laying off one percent of its workforce, after an earlier four-percent cut.

Next, a question about search share, with Morse noting there will be search volume growth in the future.

Big message: We are in this to grow the share.

Except it has not been growing, as the last several months of surveys of search share have shown.

But Bartz firmly declared: “We’ll be up” in 2011.

A question focused in on mobile, and Bartz pointed out that Yahoo had the disadvantage of not having a mobile operating system such as Google does with Android.

Good point!

2:59 pm: Another terrific analyst comment about the disconnect between the execs encouraging comments and the actual financials, which show a downturn in, yes, revenue.

It is exactly the point here, which Yahoo has been trying to spin. Morse went through the list of excuses, from bumpiness of the search transition to weakness in affiliate sales to whatever.

Bartz jumped in and blamed the search alliance again, noting that moving advertisers over to the new platform was hard to do.

“I will not back down on the fact that we are gaining momentum,” said Bartz about search. “There is a lot going on here.”

Morse chimed in, noting he was the one using “gaining momentum” in his script. “I really believe that,” he said, going through the terrific plans.

“You’re correct the top line is not showing that yet,” said Morse in an increasingly loud voice. “There’s an awful lot there to be optimistic about.”

The accountant that roared.


But then came the last question about the growth of Facebook, the Silicon Valley social networking phenom that is clearly going to be Yahoo’s biggest rival over the next years.

Bartz acknowledged Facebook’s explosive growth, but declared the company more compatible than competitive.

“There’s room for everybody here,” she said.

Presumably, that’s the hope for Yahoo.

(Also, you can see a slide deck of the financials here.)

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— Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, in their farewell D post