Marissa Mayer’s Vague Platitudes Won’t Cut It

Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) Chief Executive Marissa Mayer’s big speech yesterday, which was billed as an act of “radical transparency,” wound up being much ado about nothing.

Mayer, who joined the Sunnyvale, Calif., company in July, is its third CEO in about a year. In the speech that had analysts and investors ready to hear specific strategy moves, she instead spoke in such vague platitudes that she might as well have been running for political office. Indeed, it was kind of strange for someone committed to “transparency” to take such pains to keep her grand plans secret.

Mayer reportedly demanded that employees shut their laptops while she spoke to avoid her remarks being streamed online without authorization. The one official announcement Yahoo made yesterday was the appointment of Ken Goldman as chief financial officer.

Mayer, the former Google (NASDAQ;GOOG) executive, did have one big theme. Judging from the excellent reporting by Kara Swisher at AllThingsD and Nicholas Carlson at Business Insider, it was that Yahoo would leverage its expertise at “personalization” to expand its users and advertisers. It also plans to be “strong in mobile by 2015” and “become something users touch every day.”

Exactly how these wondrous events will occur remains unclear. That’s a pity, because Yahoo’s shareholders deserve better.

The stock price has plunged nearly 40% over the past five years as the company foolishly rejected Microsoft‘s (NASDAQ:MSFT) unsolicited $45 billion buyout offer, endured years of mismanagement at the hands of incompetent CEOs and lost its title as the most visited website to Google’s YouTube and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB). Whether Mayer — or anybody — can reverse Yahoo’s precipitous decline remains to be seen.

Yahoo in its current form makes no sense. No site being launched today would offer such a broad array of services. So, at least it seems Mayer is taking some important steps in the right direction as Yahoo ceases trying to be all things to all people.

One of Yahoo’s weaknesses was that it moved painfully slowly to address changing markets, something that Mayer is trying to change. She wants employees to focus on projects that can scale to 100 million users or $100 million in revenue. But again, details were scarce.

As I argued in July, it all comes down to content for Yahoo. It has signed partnership agreements with ABC News and CNBC. Advertisers, though, won’t pay top dollar to back content that isn’t exclusive. Rivals AOL (NYSE:AOL) and MSN are going the content route as well, so Yahoo cannot afford to scale back its efforts.

Yahoo’s sites continue to attract the most users in a number of verticals, including business news and sports. It still attracts an astounding 700 million monthly visitors. The company, though, is as stagnant as a puddle of water. Things have to change.

Unfortunately, Mayer likes business school buzzwords. In her address, she spoke of the “4Cs” : culture, company goals, calibration and compensation.” Too bad she forgot to mention “clarity.” She’s also big on “increasing feedback loops” — whatever that means.

Talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words. Yahoo’s next quarterly earnings are scheduled to be released Oct. 15. Investors will insist on more than vague catch phrases.

Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed stocks. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.

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