If Microsoft succeeds in its $44.6 billion bid to buy Yahoo, the Internet world will turn its weary eyes to Google to see the No. 1 search vendor's response.
AOL might be Google's best play at this stretch if it wants to pick up the gauntlet thrown by its Redmond, Wash., software rival. Google already has a $1 billion, 5 percent stake in the company and great synergies thanks to a search and ad deal.
AOL would cost Google $20 billion, easily affordable for Google, and less than half of what Microsoft will pay for a company that may have more technology assets.
The Time Warner property may be even more attractive for Google now that Time Warner said on Feb. 6 that it is splitting AOL's Internet-access operation from its Web portal and ad business. This means Google wouldn't have to worry about finding a buyer for the access assets it has no need for.
Platform A, the initiative AOL unveiled Sept. 17 to better compete in the online ad market, is fledgling compared to the platforms from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.
The platform includes assets from video ad platform Lightningcast, third-party ad provider Advertising.com, contextual advertiser Quigo Technologies, behavioral targeting leader Tacoda, mobile advertising specialist Third Screen Media and global ad server Adtech.
The ad-serving technologies in Advertising.com and Adtech could be an overlap issue for Google, which is expected to get the green light to close its deal for ad-server DoubleClick for $3.1 billion.
However, Google has stated that it is interested in improving its mobile, video, contextual and behavioral ad targeting technologies, making the other Platform A assets easily attractive.
Perhaps most importantly, Google may rule in text-based ads, but it owns a piddling 1 percent of the display ad market. AOL controls 5 percent of the display market, while Microsoft would own 25 percent of that market if it purchases Yahoo, according to new comScore stats. Any share Google could add quickly, even if it only totals 6 percent of the market, would be a plus.
AOL, which has seen steady declines in its ad sales for the last few quarters, would benefit from Google's tremendous financial and engineering resources.
The question -- as is the question with AOL's companion in weak financials, Yahoo -- remains: would AOL accept Google's hand in marriage?
Neither Google nor AOL responded to the question, but industry experts watch the consolidation potential with unease.
"If Microsoft does buy Yahoo, it may well trigger another round of industry consolidation involving Google, AOL and others," James Bilefield, CEO of open-source ad server provider OpenAds and a former Yahoo executive, told eWEEK.
"However, consolidation only heightens the concerns of publishers that want the freedom to choose from a variety of networks and opens the door for the type of flexibility and innovation which Openads provides."
Bilefield isn't alone in opposing such deals, although others have different reasons. Intellectual property will be a huge difference-maker in the online ad business 20 years from now, IDC analyst Karsten Weide told eWEEK. She added that Time Warner would be wise to hold onto AOL's attractive ad assets.
"Everybody who has an asset like AOL that has experience, technology and established contacts with advertisers in digital advertising would be in very good position to earn a lot of money," Weide said.