Marissa Mayer: Yahoo!’s Utterly Surprising, Completely Logical Pick for CEO

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There was a time, out here in Silicon Valley, when Marissa Mayer seemed to have as symbiotic a relationship with Google as its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and its CEO, Eric Schmidt, did.

As the company’s 20th hire, she had been with Google for nearly its entire history, and was instrumental in creating its namesake search engine, Gmail and other services. And at Google media events, she was often the primary spokesperson–an articulate and enthusiastic advocate for whatever the company was announcing.

That was a few years ago. In October of 2010, Mayer, who had been Google’s search czar as VP of Search Product and User Experience, switched roles to head up efforts related to location and local services. It’s possible that she remained productive and happy behind the scenes, but she was no longer anything like the primary public face for the company which she had once been. Rumor also has it that she left the small group of staffers who directly advise Page, now the company’s CEO again, in December of last year.

Now, after thirteen years, 37-year-old Mayer is leaving Google, period. In one of the most startling executive hires I can remember, she’s becoming president and CEO of Yahoo!, the beleaguered web giant which probably would be in much better shape if Mayer hadn’t done such a good job of leading archrival Google’s search efforts for so long.

I don’t know of a single expert who put Mayer on the short list of potential Yahoo! chiefs. She takes the position after it looked like it might be a nearly-done deal that it would go to Yahoo!’s interim CEO, veteran media executive Ross Levinsohn.

Yahoo! really, really needs Mayer to be a spectacular success. Her immediate predecessors include ex-PayPal CEO Scott Thompson (ousted from Yahoo! after 130 days when his bio turned out to have a bogus computer science degree), former Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz (who spent 30 months at Yahoo! without learning to articulate what the company was) and Yahoo! cofounder Jerry Yang (who spurned Microsoft‘s extraordinarily generous takeover attempt in 2008, only to see the company’s market cap collapse thereafter). Hollywood exec Terry Semel, whose time at Yahoo! ended in 2007, was the last CEO whose tenure was disappointing rather than disastrous.

In a way, it’s unfair to bash Bartz for failing to explain Yahoo!; it’s been years since anyone has explained coherently what the company is, rather than what it might be or once was. It still does search, but it outsourced much of its search technology to Microsoft in 2009. It remains proud of the brainy computer scientists it employs, but the company has failed to turn their science into new breakout hits. It likes to point out that hundreds of millions of everyday people around the world still rely on its services, but some of those services, such as Flickr, have fallen behind the times.

And while people often define Yahoo! as a media company, a Yahoo! that thought of itself as purely a media business probably would have hired Levinsohn rather than Mayer.

If Mayer were just another savvy Silicon Valley executive who’d spent most of her career at one outfit and never run a company, she might feel like a quixotic choice for a big, troubled public company like Yahoo!. But she’s Marissa Mayer. She played a key role in making Google into…Google. She’s famous for her obsessive focus on pleasing experiences, and the lengths to which she’ll go to measure whether something’s working for users or not. I’m not entirely sure that Google search wasn’t in better overall shape when she ran the show.

If Mayer can help Yahoo! build (or buy) consumer services as compelling as the ones she helped create at Google–and spruce up existing Yahoo! offerings in need of repair–it won’t solve the company’s many problems overnight. And there’s no guarantee that she’ll pull it off even with her obvious smarts and impressive résumé. (See: Jon Rubinstein, Apple‘s Mr. iPod, who failed to pull smartphone pioneer Palm out of its tailspin.)

But if Mayer can make Yahoo! a place to go for truly exciting new stuff in the browser, on phones and on tablets, she’ll have done far more to improve the company’s chances than Thompson, Bartz or Yang managed to do during their recent tenures, each of which was a fiasco in a different way.

It never occurred to me that Yahoo!’s board would be smart enough to offer Marissa Mayer this job, or that she’d be audacious enough to take it. But now that it’s happening, I can’t think of anyone who’d clearly be a better choice. Even if the odds are still against Yahoo!, the odds that its CEO is finally going to be an asset rather than an albatross seem pretty good.