Yahoo's Lack of Focus: Certainly a Downer

| About: Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO)

A shareholder took Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) CEO Carol Bartz to task at the company's recent investor gathering. While not a perfect presentation, the stockholder made several excellent points. Expecting a free pass apparently, Bartz blew the shareholder off, referring to his remarks as a "downer." I hope she does not wonder why the free world has lost confidence in her ability to lead. Kara Swisher summed things up nicely, over at All Things D, referring to Yahoo's "never-ending turnaround."

Cramer made a pretty good point about Yahoo, however, on Mad Money the other night. He suggested that as long as millions of people visit the site daily, it will eventually find its way to success. While plausible, it's the same hope terrestrial radio hung onto as Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Internet radio players such as Pandora (NYSE:P) brought it to the brink of death.

While the "too big to fail" notion worries me, my biggest concern centers on Yahoo's incredible lack of focus. For some time now, Bartz has been telling people that Yahoo is not a search company. And that's fine, if Bartz could finally, someday, get the company around to actually becoming "the premier digital media company" she envisions. Here's what she had to say about Yahoo's progress on that front on the company's Q2 2011 conference call:

With our massive user base, too often it was easy to fall back on pitching Yahoo's huge reach and scale. But selling on reach and scale alone leaves meaningful revenue opportunities on the table. We need a sales organization that can craft customized solutions and creative executions because this is what distinguishes Yahoo from our competitors in display.

We think of it this way. The most differentiated way to sell display advertising and the way we want to sell is customize audience-based and solution-oriented across multiple devices. The fact is the way that industry sells is evolving, and we must evolve too.

So where are we now? First, we believe the field salesforce is moving in the right direction. We've hired a lot of new people, and we see sales leaders and teams that believe in the opportunity and the changes we're making. Field sales is staffed back up to where they were six months ago. However, many of the account execs are new to the roles, and it will take time for them to get up to speed on their new books of business.

Second, we're investing in the growth of our overall U.S. salesforce and sales development teams. We will hire more salespeople than we had before. We're increasing our coverage ratios for clients and agencies, and growing categories like video and mobile.

We're also investing in better tools and training. We're organizing our teams with a deeper industry focus. We're packaging our offerings differently, and we're continuing to work on making ourselves easier to do business with.

Perhaps the most important signal we see is that this new approach to sales is beginning to prove itself. Where our new management and salespeople are making calls and deliver solutions-oriented pitches, we are getting the orders. These changes are part of the evolution of our turnaround efforts.

Why am I laughing? Because, for the past couple of years, little-old and much-maligned Demand Media (DMD) has been doing what Bartz has talked about doing. While she has been busy feebly defending her failures by doing crude stand-up (while sitting down), she's done a horrific job at executing.

Outside of mobile, which I do not think is quite there yet, Demand Media does all of the things Bartz contends Yahoo is just getting the hang of. Yahoo clearly made the wrong move when it purchased Associated Content. It took over a true content farm and decided it would bring it along. It would have been better off buying Demand Media, a company with an actual business model, and letting its executives, people with less bitterness and high morale, run the show.

Nevertheless, as Demand Media continues to focus, with tunnel vision, on its business, in the face of a languishing stock price and daily uninformed, if not libelous, attacks from critics, Yahoo keeps chugging along with a stunning lack of focus.

I woke up this morning to the news that Yahoo has teamed up with an obscure sports radio network to form Yahoo Sports Radio. It's fitting that Yahoo would work with the third sports radio network behind ESPN Radio (NYSE:DIS) and Fox Sports Radio (NASDAQ:NWSA). And it's even less of a surprise how simply bush league the entire endeavor will be.

I spent a good chunk of my life working in sports radio. Take it from me, this initiative has cheesy, failure and non-event written all over it. There's a reason why this network has been No. 3 forever.

Here's the promo Yahoo is running to introduce the newish network. I say newish because it's the same network it has always been (Sporting News Radio), but now with Yahoo branding and access to the website's stable of sports writers.

The bigger question, however, is why would Yahoo do this in the first place? Clearly the old Sporting News Radio wins here, big time. It now has access to the massive audience Yahoo Sports commands. It can drive online users to its terrestrial radio network and podcasts. For Yahoo, this does nothing to grow or even diversify its audience as far as I can see. A lower-level partnership with ESPN Radio or Fox Sports Radio would have actually made more sense, given how much larger a reach the top two sports radio networks in the country have.

It makes perfect sense for Clear Channel (CCMO.PK), for example, to use its terrestrial radio stations to drive listeners to its iHeartRadio. And, of course, Sporting News Radio receives nothing short of a gift, as it now aligns itself as Yahoo Sports Radio and drives the formidable Yahoo Sports audience to its network, a network that most people have likely never heard of. There's little benefit here for Yahoo.

Instead, this is just another move that shows a frightening lack of focus. While it's not an earth-shattering, make-or-break decision, it does speak to keeping one's eye on the ball, vision and related notions that fall on the shoulders of a company's CEO. I would expect somebody to ask Bartz what value Yahoo sees in this partnership. And I would hope she answers without the use of four-letter words and the defensiveness that has become the hallmark of her tenure at the company.

One more outburst or non-answer and I might pull the trigger and go short. A close below $13.00 per share might provide the technical impetus, irrespective of theatrics. At that level, Yahoo could breach $10.00 by the end of the year. And that would "certainly" be a "downer."

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, but may initiate a short position in YHOO over the next 72 hours.