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Marissa Mayer can revive Yahoo, and the Web

By Douglas Rushkoff, CNN Contributor
July 19, 2012 -- Updated 1847 GMT (0247 HKT)
Yahoo's hiring of Google's Web visionary Marissa Mayer is a smart move, says Douglas Rushkoff.
Yahoo's hiring of Google's Web visionary Marissa Mayer is a smart move, says Douglas Rushkoff.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yahoo has hired away Google executive Marissa Mayer as its new CEO
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Mayer could breathe life into Yahoo and the World Wide Web
  • He says the Web has gone out of favor in Silicon Valley, where "social" is the only mantra
  • Rushkoff: Yahoo is poised to become the dominant player again

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age" and "Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World and How We Can Take It Back."

(CNN) -- This week's announcement that Yahoo is hiring away Google executive Marissa Mayer as its latest CEO has been met by both Wall Street and the tech industry with yawns or worse.

Yawners cite the fact that Yahoo -- by all measures, a company that has been in decline for some time -- has hired five CEOs in as many years. The fanfare with which they are brought in is matched only by the size of the failure they leave in their wake. Those who are excited about the new appointment seem to care less about what it means for Yahoo or the Internet than the fact that Mayer is a woman, pregnant, and a former girlfriend of Google chief Larry Page.

Tech: Know Yahoo's Marissa Mayer in 11 facts

But the real story here, the part that no one seems to want to talk about, is that Mayer could breathe life not just into this failing company, but into the World Wide Web itself, which seems to have gone out of favor in Silicon Valley, where "social" is the only mantra.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

In fact, the very morning I learned that Mayer had been snatched from Google to Yahoo, I got a special notice on my iGoogle screen: iGoogle, the Google Web portal I had been using for the past two years, was going to be retired. A Web portal is simply a starting screen -- a customizable dashboard from which one gets the gist of what's going on elsewhere on the Internet, such as summaries of news headlines, weather forecast, stock quotes, sports scores, e-mail headers, and so on. For many of us who use our Web browsers to peruse and pursue information, it's a very convenient "place" to use as a starting page.

Tech: How can Yahoo be saved?

Mayer was largely responsible for the iGoogle page and the ease with which users could install or even create "modules" for it. The Web was her turf at the company, and she developed tools such as Gmail and Google maps -- the kinds of Web-based technologies that successfully competed with and overtook the once dominant Yahoo in that space.

Marissa Mayer takes over at Yahoo!
Yahoo! gets Google exec. as new CEO

But as Google struggles to compete with Facebook, Twitter and the iPhone, the Web no longer seems to be where the action is. True enough, when we're using our smartphones we're much less likely to be thumbing through a tiny browser than to be engaging with people and information through individual apps like Yelp or Instagram. The whole notion of "places" online has given way to streams and flows of information that follow us (sometimes even through GPS) wherever we happen to be.

Opinion: What signal is Marissa Mayer giving to Yahoo employees?

So it's not surprising that in its desperate efforts to beat the iPhone with Android, Facebook with Google+, and Twitter with, well, something to come, Google would look back on the Web and its portal as last decade's war. Companies usually fail by sticking with obsolete technologies (like landlines and photographic film) instead of moving into the future.

In an effort to focus on the future and please shareholders, Google is shedding what it sees as obsolete technologies.

In doing so, however, Google is leaving the Web open for Yahoo to reclaim. Yahoo already has Web-dominant properties in YahooFinance and YahooSports, which both exceed Google's offerings in breadth and usage. YahooFinance's message boards are brimming with activity. Google's are ghost towns.

MyYahoo.com, the original all-purpose Web portal, has always been more functional and user-friendly than Google's. On iGoogle, The New York Times looks generic; on MyYahoo, it retains its characteristic masthead and typeface. In spite of all this, however, Google was able to overtake Yahoo's Web presence -- largely due to the proliferation of Google apps and the overwhelming popularity of its Web search tool.

Tech: Six life lessons from Yahoo CEO

I believe Google is abandoning the Web at its own peril, and in a misguided effort to compete on the much more ephemeral playing fields of social media and handheld gadgets. The Web is not over yet, not by a long shot.

On the other hand, by hiring Google's Web visionary -- the very executive who beat them at their own game -- Yahoo is double-downing on the Web. The company may even figure out how to bring the Web to smartphones and social media before these newer technologies render browsing obsolete.

I, for one, am glad Yahoo somehow stuck this out. No matter how pervasive and ubiquitous computing gets, most of us still need locations and frameworks to orient ourselves in cyberspace.

Living: If Mayer can have it all, can you?

Yahoo was the first and best at creating this sense of place, and now it stands on the brink of becoming the dominant player once again, simply by staying put.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

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