Yahoo's Mayer: Personal Will Be Key to Search and Mobile

Marissa Mayer, in her first interview as Yahoo CEO, spoke about personalization, user data ownership and where a little love will go a long way.

Marissa Mayer has intrigued the mobile industry and beyond since, in July 2012, she became Yahoo's fifth CEO in four years (while seven months pregnant—a detail that's no small part of the intrigue). In November she lit up parent forums when, at a Fortune event, she called the baby "easy" and the job "fun." Which doesn't mean there isn't still plenty to do and figure out.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 25, Mayer sat for a 30-minute, on-stage conversation with Bloomberg Television's Erik Schatzaker—her first such interview since becoming CEO.

In her brisk, accessible style, Mayer shared her thoughts on where the industry is going and how it and Yahoo are evolving. Most notably, she described how she expects that in the next three to five years the mobile Internet will become more efficient and effective by becoming more personalized.

Mayer explained:

I think that there's a huge opportunity in search around personalization. Understanding what do I know already, what are my preferences, and how to present the information. And I think that that extends beyond just search but broadly to discovery. We can think about, how do we take the Internet and order it for you? There are all of these news feeds ... the question is, really, what order should people read things in the morning? What should they look at? ... To really do a great job in that kind of discovery mode, you need a tremendous sense of personalization.

...It's not that [personalization] replaces search, but it becomes a critical part of search. One provocative way of thinking about it is, in terms of a lot of people say that when you type into the search box, that's your query. In the future, you become the query—it's what you typed, it's your background, it's where you are, it's your preferences, it's what you looked at yesterday. The search box can take all of that as the input, and come up with a set of results that are customized for you.

Issues of privacy, then, quickly come to the forefront. And while saying that privacy is a trade-off—that users, in an informed way, trade their information for certain services—Mayer says it's critical for companies to offer users transparency, control and choices. She added that she's also a big believer that "user data belong to the end user."

How will companies protect users' data and assuage their concerns?

Industry standards will likely play a part, she said —users will likely be provided "almost an account statement," telling you what data you have stored on a site an how it's being used—as will competition.

Most of us would agree that the papers we wrote in college are information that belong to us. The searches we've performed over the last 10 years, she said, while less structured and coherent, also belong to each of us.

"They're just as insightful, in terms of they were your thoughts, your words, expressed your way. And they tell a lot about what you know and what you've learned," said Mayer. "I do believe that fundamentally they're yours. And if you can take that history, pick it up and move to a different search provider ... or take it an apply it in a different application, that's something that should fundamentally belong to you. You're allowing the service to access it in order to get ... better results. And they need to deliver on that promise, or else you're going to take your data and go elsewhere."

While Mayer wouldn't speak directly to what Yahoo is working on, she said she'd already touched on many of the keys.

"There is a real opportunity to help guide people's daily habits, in terms of what content they read. ... I think that all of these daily habits—news, sports, game, finance, search, mail, answers, groups, Flickr," she said. "These are the types of things [that] we're really been underinvested in, and a little love will go a long way."

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