Yahoo CEO Search Ends With Marissa Mayer

She’ll be the fifth CEO at the beleaguered search company in five years, but that doesn’t seem to have dampened Marissa Mayer’s enthusiasm for her new post. Formerly employee number 20 at Google, Mayer will need to bring all of her considerable skills and talents to bear if hopes to save her old company’s venerable competitor.

Mayer arrived at Google back in 1999 with a master’s degree in computer science from Stanford. A math whiz with a photographic memory, she managed the launch of more than 100 features and products at Google, including Google News and Gmail. If you like Google’s clean, uncluttered look and feel, you can thank Mayer.

One would expect someone with that kind of energy and ability to get tapped for a “C” level position, but about a year and a half ago, Google moved her to mapping and location services – away from search. Many saw this as a demotion. As the NY Times explains, the year after she became vice president of that group, “Google promoted another executive, Jeff Huber, to be the senior vice president for local and commerce, putting him one level above Ms. Mayer’s post.” To Mayer, that must have felt like a slap in the face.

So now she’s bringing her energy and ability to Yahoo. With the challenges she’s going to face, she’ll need everything she can bring to bear. Wish her luck; today is her first day on the new job. She resigned from her post at Google yesterday, by phone.

The company and position she’s moving into brings a lot of agonizing history with it. The Associated Press offers a timeline of Yahoo’s pain, starting with co-founder Jerry Yang agreeing to step down as CEO in late 2008 – something that many shareholders had been demanding ever since he refused to sell the company to Microsoft. What followed was a parade of CEOs, layoffs, reorganizations, unhelpful (at best) deals, and lies. In the midst of it all, it seemed as if no one really understood what Yahoo was or what unique value it had to offer the world.

In point of fact, Yahoo started out as a product and service company. It offered the best directory on the web. If anyone can help it reconnect with this shining past and bring it up to date for the future, it’s Mayer; she’s a products innovator herself. Going forward with  Yahoo, the NY Times notes that Ms. Mayer wants “to focus on the Internet company’s strong franchises, including e-mail, finance and sports. She also hopes to do more with its video broadband and its mobile businesses, tapping into its significant base of users.”

But could this challenge be too much even for Mayer? Shar Van Boskirk, an analyst at Forrester Research, notes that “Yahoo has too many products. I fear the challenge, is that by putting a former product person in the C.E.O. Role they won’t have somebody who has the ability to create a clear, unified vision and strategy for the Yahoo brand.”

It’s true that Mayer has never been a CEO before. But at least one co-founder seems to think she’s exactly what Yahoo needs. “In the last few years, given the turnover, there has been a lack of attention on the user experience,” observed David Filo. He should know; unlike fellow co-founder Jerry Yang, he still works at the company. “We need to get back to basics,” he continued, adding that he was very excited about the new CEO.

Steve Jobs proved that one person can make a difference in a company’s destiny, if they’re the right person in the right position with the right skills and vision. If Yahoo is very, very lucky, Mayer could be that person.

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