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Microsoft covets LinkedIn algorithms

Gregg Keizer | June 15, 2016
They're even more valuable than the data in the US$26 billion deal, says analyst.

Microsoft on Monday announced it would buy the business social network LinkedIn for a company acquisition record of $26.2 billion, a purchase triggered by Microsoft's appetite for algorithms, an analyst argued.

"There are two components to LinkedIn that Microsoft wanted," said Jenny Sussin, a Gartner research director, in an interview. "One is the data component, the other is the algorithm component."

An algorithm is a set of operations that tells a computer what calculations to run on what data, then how to process that data to generate a result. Algorithms are the "secret sauce" of many technology firms, the fiercely-guarded crown jewels on which a company's fortunes rest. Google's page-ranking algorithms, for example, are as secret as the recipe for Coca-Cola, and just as critical to Google's ability to generate relevant search results as the sugar water formula is to Coke's bottom line.

The complex algorithms LinkedIn uses to, well, link people in networks, as well as to provide pertinent content for each individual, were, to Microsoft, the most valuable half of the deal, Sussin said.

"There were two algorithms [Microsoft] wanted," she asserted. "No. 1 was the algorithm that creates the connection graph, the social networking graph. No. 2 was the algorithm that determines the information most valuable and most actionable to you."

If Microsoft can integrate those technologies into its existing products -- Yammer, for one, a $1.2 billion acquisition, and its Office 365 suite as well -- and thus transfer LinkedIn's now-public relevance to companies' internal networks, it could justify the new investment.

"If your company can help surface the information most important to your job, that could increase productivity," said Sussin.

She didn't discount the value of the data LinkedIn has collected on its 430 million users. "Customer and employee records [maintained by a company] are largely seen as having dated information which is no longer useful for organizations' ability to maintain customer, employee or prospect relationships," Sussin said in an email reply to follow-up questions. "LinkedIn data has thusly become incredibly valuable to many business-to-business sales and HR organizations today."

More importantly, that data wasn't for sale: LinkedIn, not surprisingly, held it very close. "That's the reason why this is such an interesting data play," Sussin said. "LinkedIn refused access. Google, for example, couldn't have access to it [for ad sales]."

Owning LinkedIn, however, lets Microsoft offer that data set to customers running Dynamics, its customer relationship management (CRM) software, or target in-product advertising. And by combining what it knows about its customers with what LinkedIn knows about its users, Microsoft could spin out new products or services, like the "economic graph" that LinkedIn has worked on, and talked about, for years.


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