What Marissa Mayer has pulled off is monumental, and that's exactly what's so sad about it

By Sarah Lacy , written on February 20, 2013

From The News Desk

Remember when Marissa Mayer took the job at Yahoo, and I wondered why on earth someone so respected at the apex of her career would take on such a thankless task?

Plenty of people argued with me, not least of whom being Marc Andreessen, who said that best case she'd pull off something no one else in the world seems to be able to and worst case, well, no one can fix Yahoo not even Marissa Mayer.

On a day like today, I think my point of view is being proven.

Yahoo launched a new homepage today, and in doing so Mayer has pulled off something truly monumental. If you've never worked at Yahoo, you may not realize just how monumental any substantial change to the homepage is.

Yahoo isn't a single company. It is a land of fiefdoms, of individual small businesses. There's search. Mail. Finance. Sports. News. For the past five CEOs or so, each has been arguing why this mix is key to Yahoo's future. What bolsters each fiefdom's revenues -- and hence its power position within the company -- are largely ads, which come from traffic. And there is one easy way to get a firehose of traffic: Front page placement. Everything about it can make or break divisions and projects at Yahoo -- down to the very placement and pixel. One reason Yahoo cannot pull together as a company is that each of these divisions are locked in battle with one another over each inch of front page real estate.

This article on Quartz about why Yahoo's homepage is irrelevant is -- with all respect -- almost bizarrely divorced from reality. Just because your friends may all discover news through social media doesn't mean Yahoo's homepage doesn't remain the single most valuable asset the company has.

My friends and your friends likely aren't going to Yahoo for anything at this point anyway. Sure, the Yahoo homepage is down 25 percent in traffic year-over-year. But there's a huge delta between 25 percent and 100 percent. And even 25 percent weaker, we're still talking about one of the single largest properties on the global Web. We are talking about hundreds of millions of eyeballs. Even if the trend away from home pages is directionally right, we're a very, very long time from properties like simply not mattering anymore. I remind you, Quartz, that the bulk of AOL's profits still come from the dial up business. It's been even longer since dial up was a relevant technology among the hip elite.

Think of all the advice people have given Mayer: Lay people off, divest parts of the business, buy something dramatic, come up with a new vision. The key to doing any of these -- and hence truly turning this company around -- is standing up to these fiefdoms and finding a way they can work together to make a single strong company. Even if that means picking some over the others or divesting some of them.

Mayer seems unwilling to do that, judging by her messaging around the "new" vision for Yahoo... which essentially just describes a portal with all these same warring elements.

But give Mayer credit for one thing -- she has redesigned the homepage, and for Yahoo, it's a dramatic change, even if there's still arguably way too much purple going on there. There's a newsfeed! And apps! And less clutter! It scrolls infinitely just like Buzzfeed!

I have no doubt this was a painful and wrenching process inside the company, and shows Mayer's true mettle as a leader. And for that reason alone, she probably deserves the relative confidence Wall Street is placing in her. Yahoo's stock is damn near its 52-week high.

There's just one problem: It's still not going to save Yahoo.

Not for the silly reasons that Quartz suggests -- plenty of people still come to the homepage, and it's still the single largest asset Yahoo has. But because it's still not exciting. Mayer has managed to pull the company kicking and screaming into... last year.

As she said in her own messaging on the company's internal blog, things like news feeds and infinite scrolls are what the Internet at large has already decided people like -- the so-called "paradigm of choice." By definition, Yahoo is still following. There is nothing new or innovative here. Nothing that will draw new users back to Yahoo. Nothing you can't find elsewhere. (Mathew Ingram has more on this over at GigaOm.)

And this is why I described trying to save Yahoo as a thankless job a year ago. Even making Yahoo current is a monumental task, but still one that solves nothing at the end of the day. The traffic the homepage had will still be the same traffic. Best case scenario, this stops the decline of the homepage's traffic if people love it. But it doesn't make Yahoo sexy again. If pulling Yahoo into the present has taken this many CEOs and this much of a fight, pole vaulting Yahoo into the future is simply impossible.

[Image courtesy superfluity]