Aesthetically, it’s a brand and a box, centered on a mostly antiseptic page.
Theoretically, of course, it’s much more. It’s a powerful engine, a suite of consumer tools, the executive chef’s virtual kitchen where anything can be cooked up on order.
But in the most simplistic – and, perhaps, most important – of ways, it’s a brand and a box. Here, look:
This, as you obviously know, is Google’s homepage. It’s the most recognizable homepage in the world, because when we need to know something, we “Google” it. It’s crossed the threshold where brands become verbs, and immediately after brands become verbs is when brands become immortal.
This – the Google homepage – is also one of the shiny ornaments on Marissa Mayer’s career tree. Before Mayer became the CEO of Yahoo!, she was a force behind some of Google’s most recognizable products, including Google Search and Google Maps.
She became known for her relentlessness in perfecting design and her devout commitment to user experience. Before the “experience” part, though, Mayer simply believed in users. She believed in people, their content, how they use it, how they want it provided. She invested her time in understanding your habits and wishes and functions.
What people did and how they did it are more than curious and vague inquiries. They are fundamental and imperative business questions. Brilliance, in any forum, is formed on the what and the how.
So look at Google’s homepage again. In that brand and box, what do you see?
Do you see Marissa Mayer? Do you see Yahoo?
Mayer made news this week by acquiring Tumblr, a blogging service, for $1.1 billion. It was Mayer’s most lavish purchase since taking over Yahoo last summer, but it certainly was not her first. Mayer has been writing Yahoo checks quite frequently, scooping up entrepreneurs and their businesses in bulk.
Among Mayer’s other purchases:
- Snip.it, a content curation app that makes it easier for people to find and consume relevant content.
- Alike, a mobile app focusing on local discovery – i.e. it helps you find that museum in New York you want to visit as you wait for a cab.
- Jybe, another recommendation app that spits out suggestions for food, entertainment, etc., based on personalized data.
- Stamped, another recommendation app that’s built for the iPhone and allows users to share.
- Astrid, a mobile app that creates to-do lists and other reminders that can be organized and shared with other users.
- Summly, a mobile app that summarizes news stories on your phone, making for quick consumption.
Whether it’s content creation, curation or simply consumption, there’s a ubiquitous theme in Mayer’s purchases: convenience.
This is precisely Mayer’s brilliance, her own type of service. She helps provide products that make life easier.
Before coming to Yahoo, Mayer was Google’s VP of Local, Maps and Location Services (Czar of HELP! I’m Lost is a cooler title). Before that, she was VP of Search Product and User Experience.
I have no idea if the folktales floating around the Internet of Mayer’s brilliance and eccentricities at Google are true – because it’s the Internet, I’ll assume a 30 percent base veracity rate – but they do support this idea of making life easier for users, whatever the commitment.
There’s a story out there that, when trying to figure out the best color for Google’s toolbar, Mayer wanted to test 41 shades of blue to see which was most pleasing. (If I was Marissa’s partner at that very moment: “The sky is a pretty pleasant blue – cool if we just go with that and check out for happy hour?”) It’s that level of obsession with experience that fuels a process of development called “bird-walking,” which is a fancy way of saying that you create something and then allow the public to try it and offer feedback.
That method itself is not brilliant, of course, but the motivation behind it and the foresight and confidence to listen to the results is. The literal essence of Mayer’s previous Google jobs was simplicity and utility. How do I make something you need, and how do I make it easy for you to use?
With all of the digital and technological horsepower available to anyone with an idea and an adept coder, sometimes it feels like this is some awful beauty pageant, a mistaken race to first bring coolness to our digital displays when our first worries – if not ALL of them – should regard usefulness. An app, or whatever it might be, is not cool if it is not useful; it is just tacky.
In that Google homepage, that brand and box, what do you see?
Do you see coolness? Or do you see usefulness?
This is what fascinates me about Mayer’s purchase of Tumblr: The very first concern of Tumblr users was that Yahoo would screw it up.
The big corporation would turn the platform into little more than another vehicle for adds, with banners scrawled across its forehead and pop-ups springing from its limbs. There will be a certain level of blunt advertising done on the platform, of course.
But I also could say this: Everything we know about Mayer’s past and her ingenuity and her ideas for developing products suggests this is exactly what she WON’T do to Tumblr.
There are whispers that Mayer’s vision is to make Yahoo the content version of Google – i.e. people go to Google for information, but they go to Yahoo for content. I haven’t seen Mayer say that explicitly herself, so I’m not sure how accurate a reflection that is of her mission, but it is supported by her purchases, with the latest rumor being that Yahoo is trying to buy Hulu.
With Tumblr, Hulu and the wide array of content curation and recommendation apps, Mayer is, on the abstract, building a content stable at Yahoo for users to roll around in. On a more intimate level, what Mayer is doing is building soft landing for people whose daily habits could be made easier.
I suspect when Mayer and her team were designing Google’s homepage, someone asked: What are people going to actually do on this page? What’s the entire point of having it? And the obvious answer is, simply, to find stuff. And then the eureka moment maybe was this: OK, then let’s just put a box here under ‘Google’ and focus our attention on the results a search brings back. If the results deliver, our design is genius. At least that’s how I interpret it as a Google user (which Mayer probably wants to know!)
That’s what the Google folks created. And that’s what Mayer is attempting to do on the content side with Yahoo, by snatching up Tumblr and other targets. Mayer knows she first needs the content, the billions of Tumblr posts.
But perhaps what Marissa Mayer knows better than anyone else is this: If she has a house built on content that isn’t furnished with simplicity and usefulness, what she has is a house built on nothing.
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