Whither Yahoo? CEO Mayer Says Search Personalization, Partnerships

3 minute read
Barry Levine avatar

In what directions does Yahoo’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer, want to take her company?

In an on-stage interview with Erik Schatzker of Bloomberg News last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mayer outlined some guideposts. She noted that each Web user has an “interest graph” composed of what they find interesting. By tailoring search engine information to the user -- emphasizing what people know already, what their preferences are, and how to order and present pertinent results -- she said that the company could “provide that value to the end user” around interests and experience, as well as create “a great business.”

Understanding Likes

Yahoo’s ambition for searching and other functions, Mayer told the audience, is to “think about the Internet and order it for you.” The technology to achieve her vision, she said, would emerge within the next three to five years, and could include understanding a user’s likes on Facebook, tweets on Twitter or pins on Pinterest. 

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Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer

As Mayer noted, Yahoo’s ability to personalize and order the Net toward human perspectives would bring the company full circle, given that the company’s search engine began with directories of websites assembled by human editors. Mayer said the Internet has moved through several waves, including the directory wave, then search, social and now mobile.

A highly personalized search engine could, of course, help guide highly personalized ads for the user. A key task for Mayer, who is the fifth person to hold Yahoo’s chief executive job in four years, is to reverse the company’s ad sales decline.

Learning Opportunities

At Davos she noted that it is possible to “introduce advertising such that it’s not intrusive,” and so that it adds value. However, in some cases this is easier said than done --as any regular user of Yahoo’s newly revised email, with its highly annoying flickering ads, can attest.

Partnerships in Lieu of Assets

Mayer noted that people’s phones have led to the creation of daily habits, such as email, checking the weather or news, sharing photos, getting financial quotes or sports scores, or playing games. Mayer emphasized her company has “all of the content that people want on their phones” to satisfy those habits.

Mayer recalled that a Yahoo employee asked her how the company could compete without such assets as mobile hardware, a mobile OS, a browser or a social network. In fact, the company does have a Web browser called Yahoo Axis, and it does have a social network, Flickr, but those are obviously not visible enough.

The key to surviving without those major assets, she said, is “strong partnerships.” Mayer said that, for example, Yahoo will work with Apple and Google for operating systems and Facebook for social networks.