Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!

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Okay, trolls. Get ready.

Because it’s easy to make fun of Yahoo! now, isn’t it? They’re the ones who didn’t buy Google when they could have. And then they’re the ones who watched Google eat their lunch. And then, they’re the ones who thought a partnership with Microsoft would be a good way to beat the folks in Mountain View. All the while constantly changing their CEOs, senior management, investors and business plans – until they were finally bought in 2016 by Verizon for $4.8 billion in cash, a fraction of what they once were worth.

Grab your popcorn and let the acrimony begin! Right?

That it doesn’t, that Nicholas Carlson’s Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! feels fairly even-handed and insightful to someone who admittedly is not an expert (so while ignorant, also lacking any particular axe to grind), makes it a must-read for several reasons.

“Evenhanded”? Yes, as when Carlson discusses the purchases that Yahoo! failed to make, pointing out:

“But the thing to remember is that Yahoo was, for a time, the big internet company. [Then CEO Terry] Semel and his team saw every deal that went through Silicon Valley. If they were ever going to say no, they were inevitably going to say no to companies that would go on to success. Meanwhile, they did acquire dozens of companies, including some massive hits, like Overture and Inktomi.”

And “insightful”? Certainly, as when Carlson explains what Google did right and Yahoo! did not:

“There are a million reasons why Yahoo! lost to Google in search, but there’s also just one reason why: Yahoo! put the ads on its search results pages in the wrong order. Google put the ads on its pages in the right order. An ad that pays .55 per click is more valuable than an ad that gets 1.00 per click if it gets clicked on twice as much.”

Makes Yahoo!’s failure looks a lot less like simple stupidity, doesn’t it?

But as these examples also show, the book isn’t only about Ms. Mayer. Instead it covers the birth of Yahoo! and the birth of the internet, using Yahoo! as a lens through which to tell both stories. And thus ultimately, delivering a broader context for the hiring of Ms. Mayer.

And they are stories that Mr. Carlson artfully tells. For as one might imagine, there are more characters than one would find in a Russian novel, and Mr. Carlson draws them clearly enough for readers to keep the identities and agendas straight. Indeed, the only one who comes off as a bit of a cipher is Ms. Mayer herself, for which there may be a couple of reasons.

On the one hand, it may simply be endemic to the form; we have found Mark Zuckerberg in David Kirkpatrick’s terrific The Facebook Effect and Jack Dorsey in Nick Bilton’s equally great Hatching Twitter, to be similarly fuzzy. Maybe the personalities at the eyes of these tech storms are just hard to draw. On the other hand, if at times Ms. Mayer comes across as a bit cold and heartless, well, who is to say that after all the personalities and circuses that that’s not really what Yahoo! needed?

Ultimately, however, the value of Mr. Carlson’s book is not solely in what it tells us about Yahoo! or even about the internet. Its value is in the lessons it teaches us that any business in any industry should learn. Lessons about the importance of understanding who you are and what you offer. About understanding how the industry you are in is changing and how you can – and cannot – adapt to those changes. About the pressures put upon a company and its management – pressures that often reflect the self-interest or the simple limitations of intelligence of outsiders. About no matter what you fix, there are still – always – problems. About the fact that the things you were hired to fix will change because the world is changing with each passing day.

And perhaps nowhere does Mr. Carlson explain this more clearly than when he writes of Yahoo!’s real misstep:

“Ultimately, Yahoo! suffers from the fact that the reason it ever succeeded in the first place was because it solved a global problem that lasted only for a moment. The early internet was hard to use, and Yahoo made it easier. Yahoo! was the internet. Then the internet was flooded with capital and infinite solutions for infinite problems and the need for Yahoo! faded. The company hasn’t found its purpose since – the thing it can do that no one else can.”

Will Yahoo! discover a new purpose when Verizon mashes it with AOL – another company that had its moment as the internet?

If we said we were skeptical, would that make us a troll?

Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! by Nicholas Carlson was published by Twelve on 01/06/15 – order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).