Don't count on Marissa Mayer saving Yahoo

Turning around stumbling Internet pioneer will take more than enthusiasm and layoffs

I wish former Google star Marissa Mayer well in her new job as chief executive of Yahoo. I really do. Just as I wished well Carol Bartz when she became CEO of the troubled Internet pioneer in early 2009.

Watching Yahoo stumbling around for, really, the better part of the past decade, has been painful for anyone with a soft spot in their hearts for a truly historic Internet brand. Which makes it tempting to believe a white knight, some kind of superhero, can blow into town and save Yahoo from its slow slide into irrelevancy in the emerging social/mobile world.

Some people wanted to believe Bartz was one of those heroes, the tough-talking, take-no-prisoners, take-a-bullet-for-the-troops type. While Bartz improved the bottom line with cost-cutting, she couldn't jump-start the company's revenue, which stagnated as Google dominated search and Facebook dominated social. She was out in less than three years.

After Bartz came Scott Thompson, the former president of eBay's PayPal subsidiary, last January. No one expected much from Thompson, and he delivered, serving up an uninspiring strategy of (CEO drum roll, please) ... layoffs! Then he had that big misunderstanding about his resume, and Yahoo was in the market for a new chief executive for the fifth time in five years.

Enter Mayer, a legitimate star at Google (employee No. 20) who is credited with leading teams that developed some of the search giant's most popular services, including Google Search, Gmail and Google News.

She's being called "someone of the highest caliber," an executive "with a massive and impressive pedigree," and "one of the most powerful women in Silicon Valley." None of those will matter if Mayer can't help Yahoo carve out a new identity.

Yahoo's roots as an Internet portal did not serve it well in its losing battle with Google over search traffic. (People "Google" things online, they don't "Yahoo" them.) Once Web 2.0 hit -- social, mobile, interactive, personalized -- Yahoo began to look like a relic, despite generating strong traffic.

Which gets to the identity thing again and, more importantly, perceived value. What does Yahoo offer users, besides a collection of websites and services? We all know what Google offers. We all know what Facebook offers. We all know what Twitter offers. What's Yahoo hook?

Does Yahoo arouse passion and tribal loyalty the way, say, reddit does? Does Yahoo have a strong and integrated social networking experience? What makes people have to use Yahoo? Why is user engagement down?

For Yahoo to regain its past glory, Mayer needs more than an impressive pedigree. She needs a bold vision, a product or service that changes the game. Those don't come along often, and you can't conjure them up out of sheer will. (Or by yelling and laying off people, as previous Yahoo CEOs learned.)

In a way, Mayer's in a no-lose situation. She's already wealthy and well-regarded, and probably couldn't see a path to the CEO's office at Google. So why not take a swing at the fences with Yahoo?

I wish her well, but I'm not betting on a home run.

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