Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News
Marissa Mayer, one of the top executives at Google, will be the next C.E.O. of Yahoo, making her one of the most prominent women in Silicon Valley and corporate America.
The appointment of Ms. Mayer, who was employee No. 20 at Google and was one of the few public faces of the company, is considered a surprising coup for Yahoo, which has struggled in recent years to attract top flight talent in its battle with competitors like Google and Facebook.
Ms. Mayer, 37, had for years been responsible for the look and feel of Google’s most popular products: the famously unadorned white search homepage, Gmail, Google News and Google Images. More recently, Ms. Mayer, an engineer by training whose first job at Google included computer programming, was put in charge of the company’s location and local services, including Google Maps, overseeing more than 1,000 product managers. She also sat on Google’s operating committee, part of a small circle of senior executives who had the ear of Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
With her appointment as the president and chief executive of Yahoo, Ms. Mayer joins a short list of women in Silicon Valley to hold the top spot. The elite club includes Meg Whitman, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, and Virginia Rometty, the head of IBM. Another senior woman in Silicon Valley, Sheryl Sandberg is Facebook’s chief operating officer.
For Ms. Mayer, Google’s first female engineer, the move to Yahoo is an opportunity to step out on her own and claim a bigger stage. Ms. Mayer has been one of the search giant’s most visible and powerful executives, often tapped for keynotes at technology conferences and glamorous magazine spreads. Her life outside of Google, including her posh penthouse in the Four Seasons in San Francisco and her affinity for cupcakes, has also been popular Internet fodder.
In a sign of grander ambitions, Ms. Mayer, in recent months, has started to find success outside of Google. In April, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer tapped Ms. Mayer to join its board, her first seat at a public company. She is one of four women on Wal-Mart’s 16-person board.
Still, at Google, Ms. Mayer did not have a clear path to the C-Suite.
After years of heading-up its search business, Google’s most profitable unit, Ms. Mayer became vice president of the company’s local efforts in late 2010. The following year, Google then promoted another executive, Jeff Huber, to be the senior vice president of local and commerce, putting him one level above Ms. Mayer’s post. Although Google characterized her move as a promotion at the time, some wondered if she would be content with the reorganization.
Ms. Mayer resigned from Google on Monday afternoon by telephone. She starts at Yahoo on Tuesday. Ms. Mayer will also join Yahoo’s board.
In an interview, Ms. Mayer said she “had an amazing time at Google,” where she has worked for the past 13 years, but that ultimately “it was a reasonably easy decision” to take the top job at Yahoo. She said Yahoo is “one of the best brands on the Internet.”
She recalled that when she first started at Google, the company would conduct user surveys and “people didn’t understand the difference between Yahoo and the Internet.” She said she hoped “to get focused on creating a really great user experiences” and to attract new talent from Silicon Valley to the company. “Talent is what drives technology companies,” she said. Some of Ms. Mayer’s mentees at Google include Bret Taylor, the chief technology officer at Facebook, and Brian Rakowski, the vice president in charge of Google Chrome and the product manager who launched Gmail.
As she hashes out Yahoo’s strategy, Ms. Mayer said she is intent on leveraging the Internet company’s strong franchises including email, finance and sports. She also hopes to do more with its video broadband and its mobile businesses.
Still, Ms. Mayer is unlikely to try to make Yahoo a direct competitor to Google in the world of search. In 2009, Yahoo gave up its search engine and partnered with Microsoft, which was seen by some analysts as a concession that it couldn’t compete.
“I actually think the partnership has been a positive for the company,” she said.
Ms. Mayer said she was first approached in the middle of June about the job after returning from a trip to China.
Ms. Mayer will be facing an uphill battle as she tries to revive Yahoo. Yahoo remains one of the largest properties on the Web, but it has failed to keep pace with rivals Google and Facebook, which have been more nimble and more adept at leveraging the increasingly social nature of the Web. In the first quarter, Yahoo’s revenue rose 1 percent from a year ago, after a string of steep declines.
For Yahoo, the hope is that Ms. Mayer and her discerning eye will provide some much-needed direction for what has been, as of late, a rudderless ship.
In May, Yahoo’s most recent chief executive, Scott Thompson, resigned after questions emerged about whether he lied about certain academic credentials; he had been on the job for only four months. Yahoo’s board of directors has also been reconstituted, adding three new members, including activist investor, Daniel Loeb of Third Point, the company’s second-largest investor who had been fighting to have Mr. Thompson ousted. Michael Wolf, the longtime media consultant and former president and chief operating officer of Viacom’s MTV Networks, was also added to the board.
Yahoo’s corner office has been a revolving door over the past decade as the company has unsuccessfully sought to return to its original glory days in the late 1990s. Since 1995, the company has had at least seven different permanent and interim chiefs. Its first chief executive Tim Koogle, was replaced by former co-C.E.O. of Warner Brothers Terry Semel in 2001. Mr. Semel sought to remake Yahoo as a media company.
In 2007, Jerry Yang, Yahoo’s co-founder, became C.E.O. and tried to return the company to its technology roots. However, he resigned in 2009 and the top job was given to Carol Bartz. But she was fired last year after failing to meet the board’s expectations. Tim Morse, the company’s chief financial officer, then stepped in on an interim basis.
The company’s shares have fallen 41 percent over the past 5 years.
“In the last few years, given the turnover, there has been a lack of attention on the user experience,” David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo, who still works at the company, said in an interview on Monday. “We need to get back to basics.” He said he was very excited Ms. Mayer agreed to join the company. “It will be a surprise for a lot of people.”
For the past several weeks, a half dozen names had been bandied about to take the top job. But Ms. Mayer’s name was never mentioned. Most analysts believed that Yahoo’s board was planning to hire Ross Levinsohn, who had taken over as interim chief executive after Mr. Thompson departed. Mr. Levinsohn, formerly the company’s head of global media for Yahoo, tried to undo some of Mr. Thompson’s efforts in his short tenure.
During Mr. Thompson’s brief time at the top of the company, he announced plans to cut thousands of jobs and sued one of its partners, Facebook, for patent infringement. Though bold, the moves also vexed some executives, who were wary of locking horns with the world’s largest social network and felt that Mr. Thompson was rashly trimming payroll. There was also concern that Mr. Thompson, an outsider in the advertising world, was alienating influential Madison Avenue executives.
Earlier this month, Mr. Levinsohn made peace with Facebook, agreeing to a settlement that deepens the companies’ partnership and includes a cross-licensing deal that will effectively prevent future patent lawsuits between the two companies. Mr. Levinsohn, a former News Corp. executive, has also been focused on shoring up the company’s core advertising business, recently poaching another Google executive, Michael Barrett, to be the company’s chief revenue officer.
While Mr. Levinsohn has been seen as a top contender for the permanent position, insiders questioned whether he has the background to be more than just an “ad guy.” Before picking Mr. Levinsohn, the board had also considered Hulu’s chief, Jason Kilar for the top slot, given his success in building and managing the online video streaming service. Earlier this month, Hulu said Mr. Kilar had declined to be considered.