It’s hard to have a conversation about what Yahoo is without cracking the requisite joke about everything it’s not. So when news broke yesterday that Google employee No. 20, the company’s first female engineer Marissa Mayer had resigned as VP of local and maps to become Yahoo’s new CEO starting today, the irony was not lost on the tech world. (A second surprise broke late yesterday, when Mayer told Fortune she was pregnant.)
Mayer, after all, is largely responsible for the spartan comfort we’ve come to associate with the Google aesthetic and user experience across products from Gmail to Google Maps to that timeless, stark-white Google.com homepage–in other words, everything we don’t associate with Yahoo. (Proof.)
But then we started combing through conversations we, and others, have had with Mayer over the years. What we found was a clarity of vision for Google that could have been, and still is, entirely applicable to Yahoo. Although Mayer’s vision as CEO won’t immediately come to the fore–rebuilding one of the world’s biggest Internet brands takes time, after all, especially one as battered and broken as Yahoo–it’s probably safe to assume she won’t be pulling a Carol Bartz anytime soon. Here, we revisit some of those conversations to explore potential directions Mayer may take at Yahoo.
“Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It’s simple, it’s elegant, you can slip it in your pocket, but it’s got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open–and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful.” (“The Beauty of Simplicity,” November 2005)
If Google’s search competitors were open Swiss Army knives, then Yahoo is one that’s still outfitted with a tangle of dagger-sharp doodads, files, tweezers, and toothpicks that can seem barely distinguishable from one another, and all hurtling at your face. Google’s lean aesthetic was famously accidental–cofounder Sergey Brin slapped together the HTML for a barebones front-end webpage that would connect queries to the back-end tech powering the actual search engine–but the fact that it remained that way for more than a decade was no accident. That was the result of Mayer, at the time the VP of search and user experience, saying no to a lot of people who would have had the Google homepage look more like, well, Yahoo’s.
At the time, Mayer told Fast Company, “Once you have a homepage like our competitors, paring it back to look like Google’s is impossible. You have too many stakeholders who feel they should be promoted on the home page.” It would be rich to speculate that Mayer would take Yahoo’s flagship homepage down the lean road she once traveled with Google’s–it makes the media’s job too easy, for one; Google patented it, for another–but her refusal to let others sway her clean vision gives us hope that Mayer will strip down Yahoo’s convulsion-inducing homepage, and sooner rather than later. (Read more to see how products such as Image Search landed on Google’s main page under Mayer’s watchful eye.)
“I tell them, ‘The Googly thing is to launch it early on Google Labs and then iterate, learning what the market wants–and making it great.’ The beauty of experimenting in this way is that you never get too far from what the market wants. The market pulls you back.” (“Marissa Mayer’s 9 Principles of Innovation,” February 2008)
That’s Mayer on how she used to tell her programmers to build Google products: launch early and often, and the market will help shape them. This mindset has become second-nature to Mayer, a self-proclaimed “geek” raised in a culture of geeks, where the “Googly” way was the only way. Yahoo, on the other hand, is one of the few places in Silicon Valley that’s not conducive to geekiness. Yahoo has always balked at the idea of referring to itself as a “technology” company–even long after once-formidable Microsoft had ceased to be a serious threat–and instead calls itself a “media” company. (That flip-flopping happens today: Yahoo still refers to itself as a “technology-powered media company.”) It’ll be interesting to see whether Mayer will bring Google’s product-development ethos to Yahoo, especially when there isn’t even an existing pipeline from which to coax out products. But perhaps that means Mayer will start sweeping out Yahoo’s dusty corners to resurrect forgotten experiments, such as Yahoo Labs, and instill a sense of product innovation in her team. (Read more to find out how one of Mayer’s principles of innovation sparked the genesis of Google News.)
“We want people to be able to find things in the real world that they’re going to really like, the same way they do with search. And we love data problems. We like them when they’re big. We like them when they’re messy. The local data space is a big messy data problem.” (“Google’s Marissa Mayer Talks Location Strategy,” May 2011)
It’s hard to think of a more effective way to describe Yahoo than as “a big messy data problem,” so it’s a good thing Mayer likes those. When Mayer first began talking about her job as VP of local and maps, it was clear she wanted to imbue Google’s local initiatives with the same sense of utility that she brought to search during her decade as search’s VP. The world embraced Google search because it gave us just enough of what we wanted, rather than what Mayer said its competitors offered, which was “everything you could ever want, even when you don’t.” Google gave us a sense of personalized control that was, and still is, impossible to replicate on any of Yahoo’s content-firehose websites. Think about it as the difference between dining at a 5-star restaurant where you can order exactly what you’d like versus going to an all-you-can-eat buffet where all the food is mediocre, but sure, you’ll have some because it’s there, and so why not? And it’s a pretty large buffet at that: If you’ll remember, Hotmail is still the most popular email service and Yahoo sites still collectively make up one of the top 5 web properties. So it’s powerful to imagine what would happen if Mayer were able to turn around Yahoo’s massive trove of Internet properties and revive user
interest in what it has to offer. Think, “everything you could ever want…and you’d always want it.” (Read more of Mayer’s take on Google’s location strategy.)
“If I’m an entrepreneur and I want to start a Web site, I need a billing system. Oh, there’s Google Checkout. I need a mapping function. Oh, there’s Google Maps. Okay, I need to monetize. There’s Google AdSense, right? I need a user name and password-authentication system. There’s Google Accounts. This is just way easier than going out and trying to create all of that from scratch. That’s how we’re going to stay innovative.” (“Marissa Mayer’s 9 Principles of Innovation,” February 2008)
Every company experiences failure (even Apple). And when you embrace a total-assault-style approach to your product development like the one Mayer’s describing, you’re bound to have a few more of them, in addition to your successes. (Google Checkout, for example, folded into Google Wallet last November.) Which points to one of the fundamental differences between Google and Yahoo: Google anticipates a few failures on the road; Yahoo tends not to, yet fails regardless.
The best example of the difference between the two companies is in their respective early approaches to social: Mayer herself was one of the key players in bringing Google’s failed social network Orkut to life; Yahoo sat on Flickr for years, only realizing the photo-sharing network’s goldmine of social potential after Facebook had long overtaken the space. (For more on Yahoo’s history with Flickr, see Gizmodo’s terrific feature.) For each of Google’s failures, it has seen success. What’s more, those successes have been in areas where it wasn’t necessarily the first to innovate–just the first to offer powerful and unique products that had resonance with users. Google wasn’t the first to email or news aggregation, yet Gmail and Google News became consumer hits. And though it’s hard to say what unique offerings Yahoo provides its users today (other than its unique way of distracting you with stories about the world’s largest peach cobbler), it would be fantastic to see Mayer pull something totally out of left-field–a next-gen Yahoo Mail client that challenges Gmail to innovate again, for instance. Mayer’s in a unique position to experiment because Yahoo has a bit of coasting room, thanks to the 700 million visitors it commands each month. Innovation on that scale has the potential to be massive–whether it’ll be massive enough to take on Mayer’s former stomping ground, it’s too early to tell.
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