Ironically, Search Might Be Less A Priority At Yahoo As Google’s Marissa Mayer Takes The Helm

marissa-mayer-200pxWow. Wow. Wow. That’s all that keeps running through my head as I digest the news that long-time Google executive Marissa Mayer is to take over as president and CEO of Yahoo. Smart move for Mayer. Smart move for Yahoo. And as I’ll explain more, perhaps a move that finally takes Yahoo out of the search game, but takes it out in a smart way.

A Force To Be Reckoned With

I’ve known Mayer since she started at Google in 1999. Until she moved off of being vice president of search in 2010, Mayer was the Google executive I had the most contact with. When we were first introduced, my reaction to Google PR after our initial meeting was something like, “Where did she come from, and where have you been keeping her?” She was clearly driven and deep in the product details of search.

In her time, Mayer oversaw Google’s rise to being the most used search engine on the planet. Then she moved over to being vice president of local, maps and locations services, and where while there were some successes, it mainly felt like she’d been shuffled off to the side. That’s especially so when some of those services seemed confused with or consumed by both Google+ and Android.

What Do You Get The Google Exec Who Has Everything?

Given this, the idea that Mayer is jumping ship is no surprise. Similar to other Google execs like AOL CEO Tim Armstrong or Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, what do you get the Googler who has all the wealth and tech fame they could hope for? A new company with big challenges to play with, out from under the shadow of Google, where you can prove that your success was clearly due to your own skills and not being in the right place at the right time.

Sandberg’s got the biggest claim to success so far, taking Facebook public and serving as the “adult supervision” to CEO Mark Zuckerberg similar to how Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt did when he first joined GOogle as CEO.

Armstrong’s still struggling to prove that AOL has a future that even somewhat resembles the the massive role it once played in the internet space. His challenge is closer to what Mayer is now taking on. Yahoo has significant content assets. It still has a huge audience. But it has been faltering. Can she halt both the real and perceived descent of the company?

Yahoo’s Stumbles In Search

One of the biggest drops Yahoo has suffered as been with search. Idiotic shareholders first torpedoed the company. The US Department Of Justice fired a second salvo harming it. Former CEO Carol Bartz helped seal its fate, though she almost had no alternative. I see Mayer as likely looking at the floundering efforts in search and declaring an end to salvage operations, in order to keep the rest of the Yahoo’s fleet focused on success.

Let’s go back, starting with the idiotic shareholders. Yahoo’s “Panama” search advertising platform didn’t produce the earnings that investors (and Yahoo itself) were looking for after it launched in late 2006.

Even though Yahoo was still earning plenty of money, even though Yahoo was the solid number two behind Google (with everyone else including Microsoft way off in the distance), investors weren’t happy. So in 2007, we lost Yahoo’s CEO Terry Semel and by 2008 had a proposal for Microsoft to buy Yahoo, one that Microsoft pushed against Yahoo’s will.

Enter Google, offering to save Yahoo by powering some of Yahoo’s search ads and allowing Yahoo to keep its own search technology. While the Microsoft and Google deals were debated, some of the best brains at Yahoo started leaving. Former search czar Jeffrey WeinerThe founders of Flickr. The founder of Delicious. Yahoo search vice president Sean Suchter over to Microsoft.

The deal with Google was called off, because the Department of Justice threatened anti-trust action if it went ahead. Nice job, DOJ. Ruling Google out meant there was only one other company that Yahoo could turn to for the search deal that investors still clamored for: Microsoft.

With no competition, in 2009, Yahoo agreed to a search deal with Microsoft, one that went from the earlier deal where Microsoft was buying stock and paying money to effectively just leaving Microsoft with a cut of its search ads sales.

Hearing the terms of the deal, I wrote A Search Eulogy For Yahoo, counting the company out as being a major search player going forward. No company in search had ever succeeded without owning core search technology. Despite what new CEO Carol Bartz pushed, that Yahoo would win with the search interface, I just didn’t see that happening.

Nor did it. Yahoo’s earnings off search weren’t what was expected. Yahoo’s search market share has dropped while Bing has overtaken it. And Yahoo has no “Plan B” as I warned about before, no core search technology or substantial key talent to fall back on.

A Sensible Sunset For Search?

Mayer might surprise me by announcing that Yahoo will refocus on search. But my guess is that she knows the odds are against that. She knows that search companies have won by owning their own search technology and that it’s too late for Yahoo to rebuild its technology at this point, not to mention that under the terms of the deal, it can’t use the tech it gave up to Microsoft for about seven years or so.

Rather, I think she’ll write-off search, not try to reposition Yahoo as a search player (yet again) but taking the Facebook route. There’s search at Facebook, but that’s hardly its main attraction. Similarly, there’s much more at Yahoo than search, and at this point, it makes sense to focus firmly on those aspects.

Renegotiating With Microsoft & Google?

I also suspect she’ll take a hard look at that Microsoft deal to see about renegotiating it, to the degree that she can — and involving new negotiations with Google. The DOJ might reconsider the anti-trust concerns given how its initial action arguably hurt Yahoo and continues to hurt it when Yahoo’s not allowed to seek services from all possible players. Yahoo’s share is also down from what it once was, meaning a Google deal gives it a small additional chunk of the market.

Another question is whether past relationships may help here. Despite Sandberg coming from Google, there’s no good will, spirit of cooperation or “let’s do business together” attitude between Google and Facebook. If anything, it’s the opposite. There’s no guarantee that just because Mayer came from Google that Yahoo will suddenly become pro-Google.

We’ll see. I’ll certainly be watching. After the mess that was Bartz’s reign, followed by the further mess that was Scott Thompson’s less-than-half-year running Yahoo, I’d figured the company would continue on its trajectory downward. Mayer’s appointment is one of the few hopeful signs of a turnaround I’ve seen for ages.

Related Articles

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Features: Analysis | Google & Yahoo Ad Deal | Google: Business Issues | Google: Employees | Microsoft & Yahoo Search Deal | Top News | Yahoo: Business Issues | Yahoo: Employees

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Alan

    I like her, she stuck it to Cutts over the Panda/Google local debacle. Quite frankly Google local is a mess now and I am surprised the big SEO news blogs are not investigating it. I personally think she should have been Googles next CEO however that was never going to happen. She liked to tell it like it is and if there is anything we know about the top echelon at Google is that they don’t like being told how things are!

  • Alan

    After reading some other articles about this you can’t help feeling there is some serious bad blood between her and the board. Apparently she announced her resignation by phone and not in person. I can’t help feeling there is some real fireworks happening upstairs at Google at the moment. The next 5 years are going to be fun ones.

  • Dana Todd

    It’s kind of sad that Google can’t retain its top female talent, that they have to go to other companies because they can’t ultimately hope for a CEO title at Google. It’s good for Yahoo, though, as she is probably one person who has a real sense of how Google makes its billions plus has the leadership chops to run a behemoth like Yahoo.

  • http://twitter.com/cashforapples Cash For Apples

    Good move for Yahoo! I think Mayer can bring a lot to the table. I’d like to see what she can bring to Yahoo for Search.

  • Alan

    I agree Dana Google for all it’s pretence at being a forward thinking company is just another fortune 500 that is top heavy with Testosterone. 

  • http://twitter.com/sardire Steve Ardire

    why ironically?….Search should be less a priority at Yahoo because they simply cannot effectively compete here anymore with Google Knowledge Graph and Bing.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Ironically because since she headed up search at Google for so long, some might assume she’d revitalize it at Yahoo.

  • The Shambolic Skeptic

    Yahoo! has to decide what it wants to be. What is the purpose? Damned if I can figure it out…. Good luck Marissa.

  • http://twitter.com/Solid_Air_Web Dave Wayne

    I wish that Yahoo would go back into the search business even it it would take them quite some time, any competition to Google is good in IMHO, BTW is that yet another women leaving Google.

  • Snoggler

    yet another woman? who’s left recently? Sheryl Sandberg left in 2008. People leave Google for other companies all the time. The former CTO of Facebook who left after IPO was also a ex-googler. but I guess cos it’s a him, so less interesting.

  • Snoggler

    I don’t think Dana said anything like that. Tim Armstrong left for a CEO position too, Nikesh Arora, Google’s chief business officer, wanted the CEO position at Motorola, but it eventually went to Dennis Woodside. There’s only one CEO at Google, top talent simply have to go to other companies for further challenges, same for both men and women.

  • http://twitter.com/AbsoluteVariety Krish Sailam

    I think Marissa is in for a few challenges. First, she is pregnant, perhaps pressuring her to make a deal with Google Search before October. Getting the revenue up before she takes a few weeks off will be key. I also think she will also run into a general culture clash at Yahoo. From my experience the mindset of the engineers and sales staff at Yahoo has always been subpar. For her to really get them to invent new technologies and come up with stellar products she has to a cultural change agent. 

    I wish her all the best of luck

  • http://twitter.com/kevinbaca Kevin

    The Yahoo homepage must be one of the stickiest sites on the web. So I get the content emphasis, but that does not mean there isn’t also an opportunity vis-a-vis search. Google+ Local has some problems.

  • http://twitter.com/cjz Chris

    I don’t think Mayer will be satisfied simply aggregating other people’s content. Do you need 10-15K employees to run the Today module and Y! OMG? I don’t think so. Yahoo! needs to be a product driven platform company and that’s why Y! didn’t settle for a media or finance person as CEO. I’d like to see Y! rebrand, redesign and get back into search (in some capacity)…this time powered by a Google ad feed.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_J6AB7B7E2MLHHWGL4SWKY5UEFM bizhacks.com

    Good for her and congrats to yahoo, I hope they really let her work her way. She was very smart by leaving google, now that google is the most hated search engine in the world with their greedy feed based links and  ridiculous use or private personal and financial data. I bing using bing and now I love to use many yahoo services, Bing will soon Bing Google’s butt and yahoo will finish them, I hope : )

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_J6AB7B7E2MLHHWGL4SWKY5UEFM bizhacks.com

     They can’t retain a top female talent? they can’t retain users, merchants or content writers with their pandas and penguins, good for her to leave, she can show her real talents and yahoo as the oldest big search engine, really deserves a chance to comeback, I hope they do PPC based on what the product costs, not just ridiculous PPC costs no matter how cheap the product is, also a more consistent and serious ranking, without mystery or tricks to make people unload the cash in adwords to maintain traffic, very nasty moves, do you still wonder why she wanted to leave?

  • http://twitter.com/CaptainSEO Kevin Heath – SEO

    I’d shag her too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dostarvind Arvindo Sarkar

    I believe google results are the most unreliable at the moment. I am a tea lover and I do searching on the web to get my fresh teas and to my utter surprise I type “darjeeling second flush 2012″  and get a result in google which lists 9 results from one domain from position 1 to 9. Infact the whole first page result is from one domain only. I tried searching the same with yahoo and bing, I get a reasonable result corresponding to different vendors. How can 9 pages from the same domain list on one page serially for a particular keyword phrase? Does this mean there are no other tea shops in the world who sells these particular teas? I am very disappointed with the result google is showing and this is just one example. There are many keywords that result in the same manner.

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