Is Marissa Mayer to blame for Yahoo’s failed comeback?

In the spotlight.
In the spotlight.
Image: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
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One of the most active debates in tech right now is how much Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is to blame for her company’s continued stagnation.

Simply put, Yahoo’s comeback hasn’t happened. Despite Mayer’s efforts, the company’s revenue (after traffic-acquisition costs, or payments it makes to some partners) has not grown. New bets haven’t taken off, at least at a rate that offsets other declines. Meanwhile, other companies that derive the majority of their sales from online advertising, such as Google and Facebook, continue to grow.

Now, because of a complicated tax situation related to Yahoo’s investment spinoffs, the company may be split into pieces.

Is that Mayer’s fault? That depends on who you ask.

In Silicon Valley, where there’s what seems like a chemical reaction to criticism—and where skeptics are often dismissed as “haters”—many of Mayer’s peers have taken to Twitter to defend her, or at least heap praise.

Mark Pincus, the founder and CEO of gaming firm Zynga, who is also trying to turn his company around, tweeted in late November that he has “huge respect” for Mayer for “leading Yahoo with courage and heart.”

A few days later, legendary venture capitalist and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen retweeted Pincus, adding that Mayer is a “hero.”

This week, Andreessen’s colleague Benedict Evans declared that criticizing Yahoo must include ”your plan as to how, under your management, it would resurrect the portal model.”

This generated an active debate. Danny Sullivan, a media entrepreneur who is a leading expert on the search industry, was one who responded.

When Mayer joined Yahoo more than three years ago, it was seen as a star athlete improbably joining a losing team. People were surprised, impressed, and inspired. Surely Mayer—who played an instrumental role in Google’s ascent—could shake things up at Yahoo, they thought.

But for many, likely complex reasons, that hasn’t happened. Yahoo still has a massive audience, yet its products—where Mayer’s talents were specifically supposed to shine—just aren’t that much better than they were before. Yahoo has not become Google.

Is that Mayer’s fault? It is hard to simply say no.

Mayer obviously could not have done all the work to save Yahoo herself. As everyone inside and outside of Silicon Valley will admit, it was a huge challenge. ”It was an incredibly tough hand to be dealt,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld at the Yale School of Management told the Washington Post.

Yet the company is still under her control.

The story, of course, is not over. And much like Mayer’s former Google colleague Tim Armstrong—who refocused AOL on mobile video and sold it to Verizon this year for a solid gain—she may have an opportunity for a soft landing.

Nicholas Carlson, the Business Insider editor whose book about Mayer and Yahoo launched earlier this year, tweets: