Yahoo Probably Compelled to Buy a Mobile Ad Network

Yahoo used to be one of the leading mobile ad networks. And it used to be ahead of Google in terms of innovation and mobile ad revenue. But that now feels like a lifetime ago.

While the company still has decent reach and, presumably, mobile revenue it has fallen way behind market leader Google as well as some of the independent mobile ad networks such as Millennial Media and JumpTap. Millennial Media is now a public company with a market cap of $1.15 billion and JumpTap has secured roughly $120 million in multiple investment rounds. The latter is rumored to be contemplating either a sale or an IPO.

Both companies, among a few others, are now Yahoo acquisition candidates.

Yahoo just announced Q3 2012 revenues, which showed about 2% growth. Display revenue was the largest contributor to revenues but basically flat YoY. Search grew 11% (on a non-GAAP basis). Google "owns" mobile search so display represents the greatest area of opportunity for Yahoo in mobile.

Indeed, mobile is one of the cornerstones of new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's strategy. However, the company's mobile capabilities need to be substantially beefed up. On today's earning call Mayer said the following: "At some point in the future, Yahoo will have to become a predominantly mobile company. By that I mean that at least half of our employees will be working on mobile." She added that Yahoo will be doing a great deal of hiring in mobile.

Beyond its own mobile properties and sites, Yahoo needs to be able to deliver ads to third party apps and the mobile web if it's going to see truly meaningful mobile ad revenue. This leads almost inexorably to an acquisition, which could take the form of one of the leading independent mobile networks or a mobile ad exchange, which would mirror its acquisition of the Right Media online ad exchange several years ago. 

Mayer has been busy assembling her leadership team (many former Google executives) and the thought is that she'll announce some sort of major acquisition in the near term. I had previously thought it would be a consumer facing site such as Foursquare. However I think a mobile ad network now is also a good possibility.

If she wants to hit mobile and local at the same time, she could acquire xAd.