Why Joining Yahoo Is The Best Thing Marissa Mayer Ever Did—For Google

As you may have heard, Marissa Mayer is now CEO of Yahoo, ready to turn it into a leaner, fitter, more successful firm. It's a great move for Yahoo, and it could mean great things for you, the consumer. But the entity that may benefit the most? Google.

That's because what Mayer may achieve with Yahoo would change how Google does business and the political and technological spaces that it operates within. Let's take a look at what this means.

Google Needs Search Competition

Yahoo's search effort is sinking. Back in December 2011 its U.S. market share in search slipped behind Bing's, and the trend continued at least until June. If its July and August figures show a continued slip in market share, that will make it 12 months of non-stop dropping into oblivion. Bing, meanwhile, is picking up some of this slack, as is Google itself. For Bing, however, this is more a case of it maintaining its slim market share—hovering around 15%, which doesn't represent a huge threat to Google.

Google needs Mayer to turn Yahoo search around, perhaps growing its market share by pushing for real innovation. Because a stronger Yahoo will also push Microsoft to compete harder with Bing, possibly even stealing market share from Google. That's not such a bad thing: Google has enough to share, and it'll create a dynamic, vibrant search engine market in which Google will face much less antitrust heat. "We really think an independent Yahoo's better for the Web," Mayer told Charlie Rose in 2009.  

A more competitive market will push Google itself to innovate, delivering what its users want and need—versus what experimental services Google deems fit to push on them. (Ahem!)

Designers Can Be Free

It's fair to say that Marissa Mayer wasn't the most beloved Googler to ever roam the halls in Mountain View. Back in 2009, then top-designer Doug Bowman left Google under something of a cloud. Posting a pithy blog about the matter, Bowman noted that one of the key reasons was that the management above his team weren't actually trained in the disciplines of design.

Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions. With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.

This is an unmistakeable dig at Mayer, then head of User Experience. Bowman even pointed out the truth that Mayer's team once exhaustively tested 41 shades of blue for an element of a design—a move that is in keeping with Mayer's seeming love of data above all else. She famously turned down a Googler's application once because the applicant had a single "C" grade in something, representing an imperfection in his data as far as Mayer was concerned.

Web watchers like Gawker have lambasted Mayer regularly for this habit, pointing out that perhaps she should've been fired for breaking her own perfect data score for a number of very poor design decisions, including pushing a redesign of the iGoogle page that included a logo for the controversy-mired AIG insurance group on football shirts in one of the key pieces of imagery. There was also the rather startling story from the leader of the consumer web team who Mayer thought was immaterial to high-level meetings, so she commanded her assistant to "cut down on the number of guests."

Now that Mayer's gone, perhaps cooler heads will prevail in deciding some of Google's key code and design issues.

Yahoo Is Mayer's First Top Gig

Marissa Mayer is an honors graduate from Stanford University, holding a B.S. in symbolic systems and an M.S. in computer science. She also has an honorary doctorate degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Her Wikipedia page also notes that before joining Google she worked at the UBS research facility in Zurich and at SRI International (a contract-based research institute) in California. Neither job lasted very long because she then joined Google in 1999 as employee number 20, its first female engineer.

What this boils down to is this: Mayer is very smart and has ascended through Google's management levels, but she has never been solely responsible for running a company this large. Her expertise in artificial intelligence and search and her reportedly powerful drive will likely lead her to make some sweeping transformations at Yahoo. She may, hopefully, turn the company around. 

Additionally, while Yahoo has strong Hollywood ties, and its previous interim CEO Ross Levinsohn was once president of Fox Interactive Media, Yahoo is at heart a technology firm that delivers a plethora of services to its customers—whom it then profiles so it can sell advertising. This is what lies beneath all of Yahoo's offerings, especially search, and it's Mayer's bailiwick. Less Hollywood stooge, more media geek.

No Spying Required

Mayer worked at Google for 13 years. When she acts to tweak and polish Yahoo, her former colleagues in Google will have a pretty good idea about what she's doing. And it's always handy to be able to make a highly informed guess about what your competition is poised to do next. For Google, this means it can spend less time wondering and worrying about Yahoo's plans, and more time innovating products that the market truly wants.

[Image: Flickr user Marcus Nelson]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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41 Comments

  • dave in allen

    I hate stuck up people like this chick.. They think only an ivy league degree matters.. and only care about a grade point average.. Let me tell you guys.. I've been in 3 different startups and have been associated with thousands of developers.. grade point averages and their college (even if they went to college) doesn't matter ONE BIT

  • Nicolenunnwalker

    You know where Yahoo leads?  Finance.  Yahoo-finance, I think is the go-to-place for business and consumer investors...maybe I am wrong, but does anyone know their subscriber # compared to others in Finance news and search?

  • Fabian Schonholz

    Why don't you give her time and then write an article? The lady is smart and intelligent, but she can still fail. And yet ... she might knock it out of the park. At this moment, there is little data and information even to write a meaningful article.

  • Kieren

    Bad move for Yahoo ... totally inexperienced and unproven in running any business much less one the size of Yahoo ... it's only a question of how long the experiment lasts ... 

  • John Jenkins

    Yahoo does not have a stellar record for hiring CEOs. Why does anyone think this one is any better? I give her 2 years max.

  • Serge

    It takes one kind of personality to drive growth at a thriving company - she surely can do that.  It takes another kind of personality to keep a large company going, balancing stability with change.  It takes a third kind of personality to come in a right a listing ship.  Usually that person has to be a bright, optimistic, energetic team-building that creates legions of believers.  I don't think you can effect a massive turnaround by fear.  This will not be a test only of how flexible the Yahoo! workers are, it will be a test of Mayer's own flexibility.

  • jesseG23

    No offense really, but every Kit Eaton article I read has glaring factual errors. He has got to be  more careful. It is a serious pattern.

  • Joe Blow

    Either she went to Yahoo to prepare it for Google swallowing it, or just to satisfy her ego to be "in charge", since they were smart enough at Google to not let her be "in charge" there.  She's still a 20-something mentally - "Having a baby can't be that hard - it happens every day, right?", "I can do whatever I want.", "If I don't get the ball, I'm going to stomp my feet really hard."  If she's going to fire all those who got just one C in college, there won't be anyone left, including her if you include the colossal mistakes she made at Google.  Berating people to try to buttress your image of your own self-worth isn't even 20-something behavior - more like teenage angst.  Yahoo folks had better hope she doesn't get any zits while she's with child.

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  • Jkaras9

    Easier said than done.  Research has shown that search results from Bing are better and more effective than Google, plus they have aggressively marketed the product both offline and online, yet they haven't been able to cut into Google's market share.   They have only picked up what Yahoo has lost. 
    So, if you are making a better product and spending a ton of money to get the word out and still aren't achieving the results, then what do you do next? 
    It's easy to say "make Yahoo search better in order to compete with Google," but Bing has already done that and it's not working.

  • Matt Walsh

    Yahoo is irredeemable It's been over for years. Oh, by the way. Nice job with the email security guys.

  • jae

    Yahoo search is powered by Bing.Yahoo! is still showing fewer characters in their page titles than Bing does But the core results are the same. The big exceptions to the concept of the 1:1 representation would be vertical search results, left rail navigation customizations & the inline search suggestions Bing does in their search results for popular search queries. Thats why maybe for Microsoft  ??

  • Kit Eaton

    When it comes to a question about Bing supplying search results for Yahoo, I think there are a couple of important things to remember. First, they're still reported as separate entities when it comes to measuring search engine market share, and you can probably bet that execs at Google see it like this (an important point when they come to make business decisions). Second, from a user's point of view they *feel* like they're engaging with Yahoo when they click into a search engine box on Yahoo's website. Third, Yahoo has ample scope to leverage even Bing's results in clever ways. And it did have expertise in search, which is exactly what Mayer has by the bucket-load--it's entirely possible that Yahoo could try to leverage this in the future. 

    Additionally, I like the word additionally, especially when it makes an additive point beyond the main thrust of an argument. (This is the Internet, and we can happily move beyond the constraints of language "rules", can't we? Breaking rules is where new and exciting things happen). ;)

  • Anthony Piwarun

    Kit - the first point is null and void. Bing powers Yahoo! search so there's no need to compete...

  • alvinernest

    Lets be clear Google's success is not about anyone's individual brilliance (of course everyone who can work for Google is very smart); Google's success is purely about good timing i.e. offering "search" just when search was needed everything else is just inertia... of course there have been some good decisions along the way, but not that special; any corporation occupying Google's position would have made some of their choices and may have even performed better... The fundamental genius from Google is the decision to enter the "search" business when they did... Today much has changed, and I believe that Google has already seen/experienced its best days all of which is derived from its genesis - search when search was needed... To create sustained value on that same scale, Google simply needs another master stroke from which it can derive similar/enhanced levels of value... I believe that, this sort of value is not achieved by incremental change, it depends on transformational change.. However, such transformational change is unlikely to happen within Google. Why? Certainly not because they are becoming less smart, but purely because of our wider economic culture around the "preservation of the balance sheet" this will hinder their capacity and therefore limit their ability to repeat their achievements in value creation... 

    On the other hand, Yahoo has a chance to create new value after all its balance sheet is waning and is therefore more likely to embrace transformational change... So, for me it is clear, there is no magic bullet, Mayer is capable of a lot (this is clear) but is she capable of defining a transformational agenda to create new value i.e. value that is not derived from the Google trajectory, but based on a newly imagined position that is both transformational and value creating....

  • Gerald Irish

    Google's success was not purely about good timing.  There were PLENTY of search engines around before Google hit the scene so it's not like they invented search or were the first, second, or third movers on search.  Google suceeeded because they executed better than anyone else at the time.  Their algorithm returned better results, it was faster, and the UI was cleaner than anything else at the time.  Lucky timing was not the key to Google's success by a long shot.

  • alvinernest

    Gerald, of course the Google collective executed well... but their master stroke  remains "offering search when search was needed" - the right strategic intent can be attributed to the management team while the deliverable came from the Google collective.  In the context of the value of the senior team it is clear that many other firms had the same intent, so the Google leadership is not that special...

  • Marc

    You sound like some insolent brat who insists on making his point even when presented with facts to the contrary.

    There had been plenty of search engines before google, and search had been needed before google.  Remember yahoo, altavista, lycos, etc?  Google was late to the party, but won because they were so much better than everyone else.

    Similar picture with Android: google was late, and had to overcome RIM, Nokia, Apple.  But they managed to come from behind and succeed.

    Similar things can be said about google maps (vs. mapquest etc).

    Claiming that google just got lucky with their timing once is ridiculous.