Here’s what’s up: according to sources, there have been informal talks between Microsoft and Facebook concerning the potential of the social giant picking up the search engine. However, reportedly, Zuckerberg demurred, saying that Facebook, was, essentially, too busy to take on the project.
That may be. But focus isn’t the only thing that Bing could disrupt for a potential acquirer: it could trash their ability to generate profit. It’s no secret that Microsoft has had a hard time getting Bing to perform well financially.
To make this point very apparent, let’s take two statements, one from an analysis piece on Microsoft’s most recent quarter’s earnings:
Online [Division] (mostly Bing): $707m revenue vs $739m expected, ($479m) operating loss.
And this is how Microsoft reported that same quarter for the division:
The Online Services Division reported revenue of $707 million, a 6% increase from the prior year period, and operating loss improvement of approximately $300 million.
Right, the nearly half billion dollar loss was an improvement. Ouch, you might think, why is Microsoft in search at all if it is taking a beating like that? Well, the answer is that Microsoft doesn’t want the on-ramps to the Internet to narrow to just Google, and in a way, Facebook. Also, Bing is more than just a web search engine; it’s the layer of search the Microsoft is baking into its every product.
So Bing is, and we all know it, a very strategic investment for Microsoft. It can lose all the money that it needs, provided that it continues to provide a credible threat to Google, and grow its total search volume. It does both.
Now, why Facebook as a potential acquirer? That’s simple: Bing is already integrated into Facebook, the companies share a close relationship, and Microsoft owns part of the company. But with Bing likely losing $1 billion this year alone (back of the envelope math), who can afford to buy an asset that isn’t performing well on a profit basis? Facebook cannot, with red ink like that, it would not be able to go public at the valuation that it expects to command.
And that’s why Bing is worth quite a lot of money to Microsoft, but likely little to another company. Given that huge disconnect, I doubt that we’ll see a sale any time soon, unless some takes a huge gamble, or makes a big mistake. Bing will continue as a Microsoft project, and in my view, a crucial one.