Yahoo's mission quest

It's not as memorable as 'Don't be evil,' but Yahoo's new mission statement shows it's ready to leverage its unique strengths, says Fortune's Adam Lashinsky.

By Adam Lashinsky, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Mission statements are a funny thing. They seem terribly important to the corporate pooh-bahs who craft them and then force their minions to memorize and swear to live by them. The rest of us rarely pay attention, no matter how often we're told about a given company's supposed credo.

And yet, now and again it's worth listening, either when a company changes its mission statement, or, worse, when one of the pooh-bahs can't necessarily articulate what the mission is.

Take the case of Yahoo (Charts), the Internet's most successful punching bag. The only way to think of Yahoo as less than one of the great media companies of our day is in relation to Google (Charts), which is truly one of the great media companies of our day. Yahoo's strategy, execution and stock price have been stuck for months, a victim of its poorly played competition with Google. Part of Yahoo's problem has been that for all its lucrative online advertising businesses, it botched search, the best online business of them all for several years running.

In an interview last summer with Yahoo CEO Terry Semel, I cited to him his arch-foe's disarmingly simple motto, "Don't be evil," and asked what Yahoo's motto is. After an uncomfortably long pause, Semel replied: "I don't know that we have a motto. Well, the mission of the company is, Deliver great value to our consumers and, basically, value them."

Wrong. As it happened, Yahoo did have a mission statement, even if Semel, chief executive for five years, didn't know it: "Our mission is to be the most essential global Internet service for consumers and businesses." That was broad stuff, and not bad as far as mission statements go. That Google had become far more essential for one of the most common Internet services consumers and business people seek - search - sort of derailed Yahoo's mission. Clearly it needed a new one.

Now Yahoo has one. The company invited journalists to its Sunnyvale headquarters Tuesday for a presentation by three executives from its Santa Monica, Calif.-based media group. That's the outfit formerly run by ex-television executive Lloyd Braun and now run by Jeff Weiner, who has expanded his responsibilities from being Yahoo's top search executive.

At the beginning of his presentation, Scott Moore, Yahoo's head of news and information, flashed a slide of Yahoo's mission statement, which, it turns out, was quietly rolled out internally around the time the company restructured its management late last year.

The new line is equally broad. But it might fit a bit better than the old one. "Yahoo's mission," it reads, "is to connect people to their passions, their communities, and the world's knowledge. To ensure this, Yahoo offers a broad and deep array of products and services to create unique and differentiated user experiences and consumer insights by leveraging connections, data, and user participation."

As with seemingly everything else, Yahoo's mission statement will suffer in comparison to Google's, which is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." What's good about Yahoo's new message is that it clarifies the differences between Google and Yahoo. The geeks in Mountain View may be organizing the world's information. The cool kids in Sunnyvale are connecting people to their passions. In other words, they're in the entertainment business, a time-tested and durable way of making money.

The "deep array" of gizmos means Yahoo still tries basically anything that works online - as increasingly does Google as well. The line about leveraging connections, data and user participation, however, truly says something about how Yahoo sees itself. Its e-mail program is still the most popular online, it is increasingly willing to use its data as a come-on for advertisers, and by user participation, Yahoo is referring to its Yahoo Answers, Flickr and other social-networking services that give the 10-plus-year-old company some true hipness in a Web 2.0 world.

Wall Street's hope for Yahoo is that if it can deliver with its new search-advertising platform, Panama, it can at least hold its own against Google and begin to leverage its unique strengths. If Yahoo's articulation of its own new mission statement is any indication, it might have half a chance. Top of page