Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer Discusses Mobile, Product Opportunities

Marissa Mayer Google Yahoo - P 2012
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Marissa Mayer Google Yahoo - P 2012

She tells the World Economic Forum that her early focus at the company was on people and surprises the audience with a comment about "the ontology of entities."

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said on Friday that mobile is an area of big growth potential for her company and others and that she plans to invest in updating Yahoo! products and services that haven't received much attention in recent years.

Speaking in what was billed as her first one-on-one interview since taking the reins in July, Mayer told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that in her first few months at Yahoo, she found that there were great people working there. When people use Yahoo's products, they can feel that "there are very nice, really competent, pleasant people that have a great time" at the company, she argued.

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"I got very focused on people," picking the right executives and other talent, she described her initial steps at Yahoo during the interview, entitled "An Insight, An Idea with Marissa Mayer," that was webcast. "I wanted to make sure that Yahoo is the best place to work." She added: "Strong companies have very strong cultures … I wanted to amplify it to find the energy" and harness that into innovation.

Asked by interviewer Erik Schatzker from Bloomberg TV about the future of online companies, Mayer said that the next big hurdle is mobile given the growth in usage of tablets and smartphones. "It's really incredibly important," she said. "[It is about] how we can best meet users' expectations ... But the real question is making money from it."

Mayer expressed confidence that mobile will make money for web players given the consumer shift towards mobile usage. She also said that the top functions people use on mobile devices are in areas where Yahoo already has popular services and content, including in the area of news.

The webcast of the Mayer interview was interrupted for a while, with a Davos team member tweeting that was due to a power failure, while online followers suggested that too much demand for the live stream caused the disruption.

During the live stream outage, some people who were at the Mayer session tweeted that the Yahoo boss surprised the audience with the philosophical line: "You have to decide what the ontology of entities is." They said that the interviewer asked her to explain that, but nobody immediately shared her answer on Twitter. For those less interested in philosophy: Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being and existence.

Mayer later also predicted that a hot trend in online usage will be further personalization around interests. "There is always opportunity for new disruption," and the next phase of the Internet is around interests, she said. That will follow the recent focus on social media and people's social graph, she explained.

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In that context, she described helping "guide people's daily habits in terms of what content they read," from news to sports, games, finance and email, as one focus for Yahoo. "With the Web becoming so vast, there's so much content and there's so much social context, and now with mobile, there's so much location context and activity context. How do you pull all that together?"  Mayer said. Yahoo's answer will be "a feed of information that is ordered, the Web is ordered for you and is also on your mobile phone."

Asked what is next for her and her team, the Yahoo CEO described the company as ready to focus on executing and rolling out some new products and product updates. "I don't like to talk about things before we do them," she said.

And she said that the company has been underinvested in some areas. For example, Yahoo Groups, a collection of online discussion boards, has "not been refreshed in 11 years," she said. "A little love will go a long way."

Given that Yahoo is a "very friendly" company and isn't in the hardware game, it can partner with every big technology firm, Mayer also argued on Friday, highlighting that the company works with Apple, Google, Facebook and others.

Another session at the World Economic Forum, which overlapped with Mayer's interview, discussed "Women in Economic Decision-Making," and had Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as one of the panelists.

Twitter: @georgszalai