Marissa Mayer led the user interface and web servers teams when she joined Google in 1999. Her titles have changed through the years, and have included Director of Consumer Products and finally Vice President of Search Products and User Experience; but essentially from 1999 through last week Marissa was responsible for product direction and decisions on Google Search.
The (first?) Google decade had a significant impact on how many Product Managers do their jobs, influenced largely both by the way Google worked and the realities Google and others created. Here were the key shifts:
- Metric-driven product management: Google Analytics (and other Google tools like Website Optimizer) brought quality analytics to the masses. Google Ad Words also ushered in a new era of metric-driven advertising. Quite a shift from the old premise of “We know half of our advertising dollars are wasted. We just don’t know which half.” And Google, led by Marissa, popularized data-driven product management. Google didn’t invent these concepts, which have been used and misused since F.W. Taylor, Robert McNamara, and others. But metric-driven product management became far more sophisticated and widely practiced this decade, with Google taking the lead.
- Support the network / value chain: Yahoo! worked much harder at keeping searchers on its site. Google is generally focused on sending users to the most relevant page on the Web. Google sits at the hub of a network of searchers, publishers, and advertisers. Google’s PageRank algorithm most benefits sites that are in the middle of a network, getting links from other trusted sites in the same space. It will be interesting to see if the battle between Google Android’s open network model and Apple iPhone‘s closed model plays out the same way as the Microsoft – Apple battle played out in the 90s. Sometimes I think some CEOs are kept awake by nightmares that they didn’t clean up every last nickel of profits from the network, and some other company in the value chain might be keeping a few bucks for themselves. Google has been good about building a value chain.
- Minimalistic and focused: Minimalism and focus have helped set Google apart. Google’s principles include “It’s best to do one thing really, really well.” Google delivers relevant organic and sponsored results to a search. Yes, they do other things too. But never at the expense of delivering on their core mission.
- Speed matters: The two things Google really brags about are the number of pages it successfully indexes and ranks and the speed with which it delivers its results. Google Search, Google Instant, and Google Chrome all differentiate themselves with speed (among other things). Google has told webmasters that speed is going to be a factor in search rankings, though its bigger effect seems to be in how often a site’s pages get crawled. Marissa said she thinks Google’s Orkut failed in the US because it wasn’t fast enough. At a recent search conference some panelists mocked how the .25 seconds saved by Google Instant changed their lives. The line was good for a laugh, but not much else. Speed matters.
- Empowering the geeks: Google didn’t bring in a former marketing executive at a consumer goods company to do product management of their search product under the premise that a good manager could manage any business. They took a woman with degrees in Computer Science and Symbolic Systems from Stanford University. When I met with Googlers in Haifa a few months ago an engineering manager commented that most product managers were idiots at all other companies where he had worked but at Google the product managers were all smart and technical. Google brought back a rule from 3M, and let engineers spend 20% of their time on projects of their choosing. Even in the other 80% of their time, the products are loosely defined so the product managers and engineers can work together at working with the technology to meet the user needs.
Many caveats to this list, including that obviously Marissa doesn’t deserve sole credit for all these changes, and that Google’s success has a lot to do with superior technology, etc. And some of these areas like metric-driven product management were likely to get more attention this past decade because of the nature of the internet.
Still, during a remarkably successful tenure leading Product Management and User Experience at a phenomenally successful company, Marissa helped lead some serious changes to how many of us are practicing product management.
On a perhaps unrelated note, the more I read about things like Aaron Sorkin’s claims of frightening misogyny surrounding the founding of Facebook, the more I smile thinking of Marissa and Google breaking through the Beauty and the Geek dichotomy.
On a final note, I think the announcement of Marissa’s new job was poorly timed. Bing and Facebook were about to announce a partnership and Google was expected to announce a poor quarter. So on the day of the announcement, some thought Google’s best days were behind it and that Marissa was being taken down a notch. Two days later Google issued its earnings release which was much better than most analysts predicted. Marissa’s job change comes with Google still showing tremendous strength in search.