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Although it’s still recognized around the world, Yahoo’s brand has been losing its luster as people increasingly embrace social networks such as Facebook and short-messaging service Twitter to keep track of what’s going on instead of relying on a media hub like Yahoo’s website.

Yahoo isn’t at the forefront of the Internet anymore,” said Benchmark Co. analyst Clayton Moran. “Its assets have grown duller.”

That hasn’t discouraged opportunistic buyout firms from circling Yahoo like vultures hovering over a wounded animal.

The list of firms believed to be considering a run at Yahoo includes KKR & Co., the Blackstone Group, and Silver Lake. Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz’s name also has popped up as a potential bidder. There is even talk of Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, who remains one of the company’s largest shareholders, teaming up with one of the bidders in a leveraged buyout. Yang already took one unsuccessful stab at fixing Yahoo during an 18-month stint as CEO that ended with Bartz’s hiring in January 2009.

Then there is this wild card: Microsoft Corp., Yahoo’s jilted suitor, rival and now Internet search partner.

If Microsoft were to return with another bid for Yahoo, it would be at a much lower price than the $47.5 billion, or $33 per share, that it offered in May 2008. Microsoft walked away when Yang didn’t immediately jump at the chance to sell at such a high price. Now, Yahoo would be fortunate to fetch as much as $20 per share or about $27 billion, in a sale of the entire company, Moran said.

Microsoft has less incentive to pursue a deal now because Yahoo now relies on Microsoft to process the search requests on its website. That arrangement, negotiated by Bartz, gives Microsoft the traffic and user insights it was seeking when it tried to buy Yahoo three years ago. The alliance so far isn’t producing as much money as Yahoo envisioned, prompting it to persuade Microsoft to guarantee a certain amount of revenue through March 2013 _ a year longer than the original promise.

In a late Tuesday appearance at an Internet conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said it was a good thing the attempt to buy Yahoo in 2008 didn’t pan out because the economy later descended into its deepest recession since World War II.

“Sometimes, you’re lucky in life,” Ballmer said at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. “With that said, there are a lot of great things at Yahoo.” He wasn’t asked if Microsoft is mulling another takeover attempt.

The only company that has publicly said it may make a bid for Yahoo this time around is the Alibaba Group, a Chinese Internet giant that has a testy relationship with Yahoo. The two companies are already linked through a 43 percent stake that Yahoo owns in Alibaba, but Alibaba CEO Jack Ma wants to find a way to turn the tables. Ma recently told a Silicon Valley audience that he is very interested in buying Yahoo. A Chinese news service reported this week that Ma says he has lined up $20 billion to mount a bid.

But even if Yahoo and Alibaba could agree on a price, they would still have to persuade U.S. regulators to allow a Chinese-owned company to buy a high-profile American company involved in communications.

Even if Alibaba doesn’t make a bid on its own, Ma will likely be a key figure in any takeover attempt because his company is such a vital piece of the Yahoo puzzle, Moran said.

If Yahoo’s board decides a sale doesn’t make sense, then its next job will be picking a new CEO. The top internal candidates are believed to be Morse and Ross Levinsohn, the company’s executive vice president of Americas. Recruiting an outsider could be daunting because of all the uncertainty and challenges still facing Yahoo.

“There is still some appeal in Yahoo, but it is going to require a lot of work to get them back on track,” said S&P Capital IQ equity analyst Scott Kessler.