When I posted here last week under the headline, Twitter, the Yahoo! of its time, I was working on the assumption that Yahoo! was firmly jammed in the trash can of cloud history with no chance of rescue. Events this week have undermined that premature assessment. The appointment of one of Silicon Valley’s smartest product strategists, Marissa Mayer, as Yahoo!’s new CEO could be just the undelete action Yahoo! needs, leading to a miraculous turnaround from its current challenges. Readers who encounter my earlier headline in future years may end up scratching their heads wondering what on earth I could have meant, with their hindsight of Yahoo!’s subsequent resurgence.
I have always admired Mayer, ever since learning that she was the custodian of Google’s lean, wholly functional home page. At a time when everyone else on the Web was starry-eyed about capturing the attention of Web surfers with glitzy graphics and special effects, it took real strength of mind to realize that what mattered most to Google’s users was finding results. In a strategy that went totally counter to the received wisdom of the time, Mayer realized that the less time users spent when visiting Google’s website, the more value they would get out of it. That epiphany led directly to the harnessing of AdWords, which made money for Google by sending visitors to other people’s websites. It was a masterstroke.
And it was precisely opposite to the strategy Yahoo! pursued and which ultimately failed it, as I outlined last week in my now unwisely titled posting. Mayer has always understood the importance of function and user outcomes. Yahoo! got sidetracked into focusing on content and user distractions. As a result, its most valuable assets have been starved of investment and development.
It’s a big gamble whether Mayer can succeed in turning Yahoo! around at such a late stage, especially as she has never led a company and faces a huge leadership task. But I’m inclined to believe Yahoo!’s board have made an inspired choice. What’s more, she may have timed her move perfectly to sync with an emerging groundswell against display advertising and its social media successors in favor of a greater focus on delivering value that users pay for. Her challenge is to ensure that Yahoo! really can turn its wasting functional assets into services that can retain their broad appeal while beginning to generate meaningful new revenue streams.