Does Yahoo want to be Apple's mobile search engine?

The Internets are abuzz with a juicy report that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is launching a bold move to supplant Google as the default search engine on Apple’s popular iPhones and iPads. But like so many tech rumors, this one’s a long way from happening yet.

The story comes from veteran tech blogger Kara Swisher, who reported Wednesday on Re/Code that Mayer has begun talking to top-level contacts at Apple about a possible search deal. Swisher, who seems to be on the speed-dial list of numerous well-placed Yahoo sources, has previously reported that Mayer has launched an intensive effort to rebuild Yahoo’s search technology, which has been allowed to languish since Yahoo essentially outsourced its own search function to Microsoft a few years ago.

Mayer has hinted that she’s not happy with Yahoo’s Microsoft deal. But while it covers traditional web search, Swisher notes that it doesn’t preclude Mayer from building new capabilities aimed at mobile and “contextual” search, which builds on data showing a searcher’s location and other acivities.

Any deal with Apple could be a blow to Google, which makes a ton of money from showing search-related ads to users of Apple devices. Swisher and other blogs have reported that Google pays Apple $1 billion a year for the coveted position of default search engine (users can switch to a different engine if they wish), though Google won’t confirm that figure.

Yahoo, however, faces an uphill battle in taking Google’s spot, as veteran search-industry observer Danny Sullivan notes in a lengthy post on the Search Engine Land blog. To start, he says, Yahoo has little search expertise today, as many talented engineers in the field have gone to work for Google and Microsoft. He also notes that search is a much bigger and more complex task today than it was a decade ago.

Finally, Sullivan also argues that Microsoft, which already provides search functions to Apple’s voice-enabled Siri, would likely bid for the job as well, if Apple seems willing to forsake Google. And he points out that Apple’s effort to replace Google as the default app for Maps on the iPhone turned into a disaster for Apple, while prompting more users to download Google’s own app.

“Apple doesn’t want to risk a repeat of Mapgate with Searchgate,” Sullivan wrote.

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (350 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.