Do any of us really know Yahoo? It’s been ever-present in our lives for more than 20 years, but like that cousin whom you only see at family reunions, no one, including Yahoo itself, I fear, really knows it.
Yahoo (or, more on-brand, Yahoo!) had the benefit of being first in online search in 1994, but it didn’t hold the lead very long. Its hierarchical “browse tree” search system lacked any kind of intelligent engine behind it and ended up looking silly and useless by the time Google came along (Yahoo eventually licensed other search engines, including, at different times, Google and Bing).
Yahoo! was also not unique in its quest to become the online content portal for everyone. As it bolted on offerings like weather, news, finance and sports, not to mention services like website hosting, chatrooms, groups and email, its product trajectory closely mirrored its primary competitor, America Online. Ironically, there is now a decent chance that the two companies may become one under Verizon.
That fresh-again rumor sent me back to the archives to try and understand how Yahoo got here. Are there fundamental flaws that made this result — the upcoming sale of assets, likely shuttering of various businesses and probably the ouster of former Silicon Valley wunderkind and current CEO Marissa Mayer — inevitable?
Yes. And no.
A history of confusion
Reading though Yahoo stories over the last decade-plus Is the equivalent of a digital roller coaster ride. The valleys were CEO departures and the peaks were the injections of optimism attended by each new CEO face.
From co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang to Timothy Koogle (I know, but he was there in 1998, before we even knew how to Google) to the fiery Carol Bartz to the Hollywood gleam of Terry Semel to Scott Thompson to, finally, Mayer, each leader has struggled to find the strategic path forward for the company. There have been numerous mission statement spins.
In 1996 Yahoo was primarily an “Internet Navigational Service.” By 2012 (during Thompson’s brief tenure),Yahoo become a premiere digital company. Mayer came on board in the second half of 2012 and promised to bring Yahoo back to its roots, which, in hindsight, made zero sense since Yahoo’s roots were as a search company. Microsoft was powering virtually all of Yahoo’s search in 2012. Perhaps Mayer meant Yahoo! would go back to Microsoft’s roots and become a technology company. I’m only half kidding.
Each leader has struggled to find the strategic path forward for Yahoo!. There have been numerous mission statement spins.
Mayer settled on the Sherpa definition for Yahoo: “Yahoo is a guide focused on informing, connecting, and entertaining our users.” It’s something suitable and vague, like a beige suit that will look okay on top of almost any shirt pattern.
I’ve often argued that, in order to survive, Yahoo would have to stop trying to be both a media and a tech company, but this mission statement kept the confusion intact, bookending the more utility-focused “connecting” with actual content (“information” and “entertainment”).
To Mayer’s credit, she ably tried to steer these two ships at the same time, quickly spinning up major revamps of key content areas with fresh and high-profile faces like Katie Couric and The New York Times’ David Pogue, while updating key Yahoo properties like Yahoo! Weather, Maps and Flickr.
A new hope
It was around this time that I visited Yahoo’s Sunnyvale, California, campus. Mayer was too busy to meet with me (2013 was near the peak of her Yahoo roller coaster ride and she was in high demand).
As I sat in one of Yahoo’s on-campus cafés, a pair of Yahoo corporate PR reps extolled the remarkable changes Mayer had wrought. Prior to her coming on board, the parking lots were often empty in the morning. People more or less strolled in when they wanted to, and the mood was dark. Mayer had revitalized the business and the team. People were accountable. A Yahoo engineer I spoke to at the time was especially excited. They had focus and a purpose.
As we sipped on company-supplied cups of coffee, one PR person insisted to me that she was not simply saying this because it was her job: People were really excited and feeling good. I certainly got that vibe when I was there. Today, that PR pro no longer works for Yahoo.
I have not been to Yahoo!’s campus in years and, as I wrote this, I started going back through my inbox, looking for messages from team Yahoo!. I realized that they had stopped emailing me in 2014. When I mentioned this to a coworker, he thought it might because we hadn’t been particularly kind to Yahoo in the last few years.
That’s true, but, in our defense, no one had. How could anyone? Especially as it became increasingly clear that when the initial blush of excitement and enthusiasm faded, Mayer was still running the same old Yahoo with the same old problems that had been present for nearly a decade: Lots of products, lots of eyeballs and a near-total lack of strategic focus.
Stepping back from PR at a time when Yahoo! probably needed it most was also a strategic mistake (though certainly not its biggest). An expert communicator, Mayer was only comfortable speaking to what she likely saw as the upper echelon of the media food chain. The problem with doing that is that she often failed to communicate with Yahoo’s own audience.
If and when Yahoo! is sold off in pieces and Mayer exits, there will be those who question whether or not she was the right choice for CEO. I’m not one of those people. Her track record at Google and its enduring influence on many of the key products we use to this day (search, Gmail and Google Maps) makes her resume almost unparalleled.
A pair of Yahoo corporate PR reps extolled the remarkable changes Mayer had wrought.
Was she, perhaps, too in love with media to make tech Yahoo’s focus, a strategy more along the lines of Google’s — leave the content to everybody else? She could have sold Yahoo’s media properties when she came on board and used the capital as well as the billions from its 20% stake in Alibaba to build some amazing products, perhaps even hardware.
Mayer has a background in artificial intelligence. She could have built a Siri for Yahoo and even an Amazon Echo-style gadget to go with it — before Amazon. Of course, hardware is a tough business (ask Google) and that strategy might have failed as well.
She also could have accelerated mobile development and, instead of juggling the Yahoo brand confusion that’s persisted for over a decade, put mobile as the first thing in her new mission statement: “Yahoo is a mobile guide focused on informing, connecting, and entertaining our users.” While putting a word inside the mission statement doesn’t instantly transform a 10,000-employee company, it obviously sends a message.
Mayer said herself in a March 2016 interview with Charlie Rose that she’d increased the number of mobile developers from 50 to 500. That’s impressive, but I never felt as if she had her eyes trained on the mobile ball, certainly not in the way Facebook has. Roughly around the same time Mayer was getting deep into Yahoo, Zuckerberg was coming to grips with his company’s stumbling mobile strategy.
Zuckerberg retooled, while Mayer further diversified, aqui-hired and outright bought companies, including Tumblr. David Karp’s company should have been a big win for Yahoo (and I’m sure it is on the eyeballs front),but it hasn’t conveyed upon Yahoo the kind of relevance you might have expected. The rise of Snapchat may have sapped away Tumblr’s core (and highly desirable) teen audience
Whatever the case, in the mobile space, Facebook is winning while Yahoo! is… well… up for sale.
Whoever buys Yahoo (Verizon, Google, big-money investment groups),the future of Yahoo will look very different from its storied past. There will be no more hand-wringing about the next CEO (it will become part of a stable of smaller companies) and because it’s likely to be broken up, the strategy of each piece will quickly align with each parent.
The confusion will be over. The suffering will end. And this may be the last time I write about Yahoo as a standalone company.
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