Mozilla & Yahoo: Choice and Innovation or Constricting & Imitative

Chapell-Headshot-2_260 KRyan_031Though it’s been said, many times, many ways, the art of search and find is second to the science of click and pay. Case in point: the recent Firefox bed hop from Google to Yahoo will be the gift that keeps on giving throughout the year—we’re just wondering whose tree is getting all those presents.

Starting in January of 2015, Yahoo will be the default search engine for Firefox. And as part of the deal, Yahoo would agree to respond to Do Not Track signals coming from Firefox.

We were a bit surprised that Mozilla chose Yahoo as their default search provider. From Do Not Track to yet another business decision that may or may not be couched on a value proposition for the end user, this deal has more than one point that deserves another look, or a question or two.

Do Not Track Payola?

Of particular note is the DNT portion of the agreement. Just seven months ago, Yahoo announced that they would NOT honor DNT. We’ve made it clear that we believe that DNT is bad for privacy and competition. If Yahoo honestly sees things differently; if the Purple Kingdom really believes that DNT is a sound privacy standard, it should not be hard to take them at their word. However, if the PRIMARY reason they are honoring DNT is to accommodate Mozilla’s multi-million dollar deal – well, that’s another story altogether. If you’re willing to put your credibility up for sale, I hope for your sake that you get a good price.

What’s changed since April of 2014 that would lead Yahoo to honor DNT for Firefox? Does Yahoo no longer think that a “personalized web” is a laudable goal? And does Yahoo honestly believe that the W3C Do Not Track standard is going to receive widespread adoption? Those were Yahoo’s rational for moving away from DNT back in April. Have those things changed in seven months? It doesn’t seem likely.

Another question – is Yahoo planning to respond to DNT signals on Chrome, IE and Safari as well? Or will that shoe only drop if Yahoo can strike deals with other browsers?

Putting your customers first?

More often than we’d care to imagine, business decisions in the technology sector are made on behalf of the consumer and without the consumer’s knowledge. A lack of consumer knowledge is the biggest sin of omission perpetrated on the people of the internet today.

Call it apathy or call it ignorance, most people hit the default offered by the technology access point. Accepting what “came in the box” is the path of least resistance. Think we’re exaggerating? Try using an Android device without Google. Try using an Apple device without well, Apple stuff.

But search isn’t about big fruit or complicated math. Search is a public utility. Search is in essence, a public trust. People use search engines to find things and they trust that ads will be labeled and sites listed first are the best ones for them. A simple, clean looking results page has proven time and time again the most effective.

The Firefox browser tagline “Choose Independent, Choose Firefox,” is misleading at best, since Firefox hasn’t been independent since it first lined up with Google over ten years ago. While technically a nonprofit, the Mozilla Corporation still requires revenue to keep it running – some $300 plus million of which came from Google according to publicly available financial information. If the corporation is dependent on (or beholden to) one company for the bulk of its income, independent is certainly not a word I would use to describe it.

Then again, Google didn’t have a competing browser in 2004. Back in 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google Chrome pushed Firefox out of the number 1 spot in terms of usage. Competition certainly played a factor in the decision to change the default search engine.

Corporation first?

Mozilla’s announcement was both confusing and difficult to read. “Today we are announcing a change to our strategy for Firefox search partnerships. We are ending our practice of having a single global default search provider.”

In the next paragraph; “Under a new five-year strategic partnership announced today, Yahoo Search will become the default search experience for Firefox in the U.S.”

Isn’t a default pretty similar to a single provider? It might as well be. When you download the browser, a consumer has to uncheck the box that gives Firefox permission to take over all browsing activates as the device’s “default” browser. Firefox wants to be your default browser when you download it, and one could argue that making changes to devices like a forced opt out default browser selection doesn’t do much to promote competition.

Then we saw the corporate line from Yahoo; “Starting in December, Firefox users will be introduced to a new enhanced Yahoo Search experience that features a clean, modern interface that brings the best of the Web front and center.

Yahoo is moving back toward search as a core business focus and Firefox is lending a helping hand. It doesn’t take a search expert to put together former Google exec plus current Yahoo CEO equals results that look a lot like Google. A smart guess on a Firefox software update once the partnership is in place will point Firefox users back to Yahoo as the default. So Yahoo definitely got a good deal here, but does “not Google” as the default search engine mean healthy competition for Mozilla users?

The truth is…

On the privacy front, let’s simply say that good privacy practices shouldn’t be a negotiable point in a term sheet. Privacy shouldn’t be something that you only take into account when you’re given a big pile of money.

On the search front, this is clearly a good move for Yahoo, but it’s really hard to swallow the independence pill from Mozilla when it comes with so much corporate sugar. If Firefox was truly independent, it wouldn’t need a default anything. It wouldn’t strong arm users into using so much of its own assets when updating and adding.

The new deal from Yahoo and Mozilla should have the world asking a lot more questions about motivation and end results. Is this really about privacy? Is this really about Mozilla putting its users first? Needless to say, we have our doubts.

If this is about something other than monetizable search traffic, here’s to hoping someone from Yahoo and Mozilla will enlighten us all soon, but don’t hold your breath.

Alan Chapell is an attorney, industry analyst and certified information privacy professional focusing on digital advertising and privacy. Follow Alan (@chapell68) on Twitter.

Kevin M. Ryan (@KevinMRyan)is the founder of the digital advertising firm Motivity Marketing, Inc. and co-author of the Palgrave Macmillan digital strategy guide, “Taking Down Goliath.”His writing has appeared in Forbes, Advertising Age, MediaPost, iMedia, Marketing Land, Search Engine Watch and Popular Mechanics