Yahoo Still Tilting at Windmills?

I don’t personally know Marissa Mayer, but over the years I have heard nothing but great praise of her from people whose opinions I trust. I have heard she’s a great leader and extremely smart, with excellent product chops. She’s clearly ambitious and driven, and I wish her well in her new role. I have long rooted for Yahoo to turn around its fortunes, and I would be thrilled if this were the spark the company needs.

But … I’m not buying it. Here’s what I struggle with:

  • I think the idea that Yahoo was ever a “truly great technological innovator” is a myth. Yahoo’s strength has always been its audience and media assets, not its great technology.
  • Their last two CEOs have been “product leaders” who could “help return the company to its roots of product development and technical innovation.”

It hasn’t worked. The more Yahoo tries to fight Google, Facebook and the like on the front lines of product/technology innovation, the more it plays into its opponents’ strengths, and the farther behind it falls. Yahoo has been tilting at windmills trying to fight Google for more than 10 years, and the results are clear.

A CEO who understands the media opportunity and understands that, in the world of media, “good enough” is good enough when it comes to technology, feels like the right leader for Yahoo. That’s what Ross Levinsohn (and his plan) felt like to me, and I think it was going to work. Was it going to create a $200B market cap company fueled by dramatic product innovation? I doubt it. But if you want to build that company, you would be better off doing it from scratch.

Will Marissa Mayer, who has come of age in the culture of Google, understand that Yahoo truly is a media company at its core? Will she recognize that the “history of technical excellence at Yahoo” is a myth? Will she see that going toe to toe with Google and Facebook for tech talent is a losing proposition? Will she settle for “good enough” when it comes to technology to drive the company’s growth? I just don’t see it. I think she will try to do what Yahoo has been trying to do for years: Beat Google (and now Facebook) at a game Yahoo can’t reasonably expect to win.

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