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Marissa Mayer’s Media Problem at Yahoo Is Now Verizon’s to Solve

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Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo, and Adam Cahan, a senior vice president, at a mobile developer conference in February 2015 in San Francisco. Credit Max Whittaker for The New York Times

In the end, the deal that Yahoo announced on Monday, that Verizon Communications would buy its internet business for $ 4.8 billion, looked more like an escape than an exit. Yahoo, once at the center of the consumer web, had been pushed to the margins, overwhelmed by direct competition and generational change.

There is no doubt that Yahoo made a valiant turnaround effort in recent years. Under the leadership of Marissa Mayer, the company made numerous attempts to improve its core business, with a steady run of acquisitions and investments in new apps and services.

But one central aspect of Ms. Mayer’s strategy — putting major money and attention into Yahoo’s media properties, a wide range of news and entertainment publications and video projects — always seemed curious. And few people knew why this was a risky strategy better than Ms. Mayer herself. At Google, she had preached the coming challenges of making media on the web; at Yahoo, she lived them.

In 2009, Ms. Mayer, then the executive at Google overseeing search products, was invited to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. The subject: “The Future of Journalism.” Her message: Fundamental changes are underway, and navigating them will not be easy for media companies.

Her prepared remarks explained, in clear terms, what Google offered to publishers (traffic to their websites) as well as what Google took from publishers (control over the audience that arrived through Google):

Because our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, high-quality content is incredibly important to Google. Our most basic goal is to connect users with high-quality and reliable information. Credible, factual, trustworthy content — that is, journalism — is critical to the millions of users who search for news stories on Google.

Over the years, media companies tailored articles and videos to game Google’s opaque search algorithm. Google encouraged that, because it improved their search results. It also helped drive traffic to news sites.


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As Yahoo’s chief executive, Ms. Mayer acquired more than 20 companies, but ultimately struggled to turn around the web pioneer.

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But Ms. Mayer outlined a situation in which most websites were almost entirely replaced as distributors of information, by Google, or Google-like companies. This, she admitted, was a hardship for publishers:

When producing an article for online news, the publisher must assume that a reader may be viewing this article on its own, independent of the rest of the publication. To make an article effective in a stand-alone setting requires providing sufficient context for first-time readers, while clearly calling out the latest information for those following a story over time. It also requires a different approach to monetization: Each individual article should be self-sustaining. These types of changes will require innovation and experimentation in how news is delivered online, and how advertising can support it.

Even web media companies, she acknowledged, depended on their ability to capitalize on distribution — to be able to sell their sites, and their audiences, as publications. To concede a direct relationship with readers to Google, or another company like it, is to turn your product into someone else’s inventory, and to risk accelerating any media company’s nightmare: full commoditization.

Ms. Mayer was describing the state of the media, and much of the rest of the web, from the perspective of the dominant search engine. She had used this formulation before, in an interview from the Knight Foundation; it was echoed, in December 2009, in a commentary written by Eric Schmidt, then chief executive of Google, for The Wall Street Journal:

Now the internet has broken down the entire news package with articles read individually, reached from a blog or search engine, and abandoned if there is no good reason to hang around once the story is finished. It’s what we have come to call internally the atomic unit of consumption.

This distinctive terminology describing how internet users would get information was in equal parts prophetic and motivated. How Ms. Mayer and Mr. Schmidt described the power of major online platforms — the manner in which powerful engines like Google profoundly shape the web, and companies, around them — would have provided a useful way to think about the dominance of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter since.

Ms. Mayer’s more specific prescription for how the web of 2009 should develop to accommodate Google, on the other hand — by creating constantly updated and growing “living stories” to replace articles and web pages — didn’t quite come to pass, as search results were superseded by fast-moving social feeds for news and entertainment. Google now has plenty of competition as a major online media distributor. The “atomic unit” she described remains just that.

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