Google executed a subtle yet important shift in its management structure today, promoting one of the most visible faces of the company to oversee a potentially important source of growth.
Marissa Mayer, Google's first female engineer and probably the only one who will ever grace the pages of Vogue, is taking on a new role at Google heading up its work on location-aware services and local markets after years of overseeing the user interface of Google search. She'll also be joining Google's operating committee, the cabinet-of-sorts for Google's ruling triumvirate of CEO Eric Schmidt and co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
"Marissa is moving over to an exciting new role covering geo/local, which is crucial to our users and the future of Google. Marissa has made an amazing contribution on search over the last decade, and we're excited about her input in this new area in the decade ahead," Google said in a statement.
Mayer, 35, is now the youngest person on that committee. Her elevation is a sign not only that Google believes in her past contributions, but also that it believes she is the person that can help the company solve the pending problem of how to stay relevant as the Internet evolves beyond search as the center of the online universe.
In a way, it's confirmation that Google believes it missed out when it allowed Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley to leave the company after it had acquired Crowley's older company, Dodgeball, yet. Mayer will be tasked with figuring out how to take advantage of Google's huge database of local information--things like Place Pages and Google Maps--and its work on mobile applications like Latitude to create the world has yet seen, according to one source familiar with Google's plans.
It's also a gamble that Google no longer faces the type of competitive threats on its home turf that it once did. Google is asking Udi Manber--its chief search engineer--to also take on Mayer's product-oriented role, a shift in management philosophy from an older Google where separate people were in charge of product development and engineering to a newer one where that role is occupied by a single person, such as Andy Rubin's role heading up the Android team or Dave Girouard's role heading up Google's enterprise technology efforts.
Google is often reluctant to talk about big-company topics like human resources management or organizational structure, but as the company grows older and bigger such topics matter. A source familiar with the company's thinking said that while little will change for rank-and-file Googlers as a result of Mayer's promotion, the promotion sends a clear message as to Google's future priorities.
In addition to her work on local and location-aware products, Mayer will lead a team examining what is in store for the Internet far into the future, a subject matter Google--and few others--have yet to articulate. There's clear acknowledgment that the social-media power brokers (really, Facebook and Twitter) will start accumulating their fair share of Internet advertising dollars as they grow, potentially shrinking the pie from which Google can depend on to fund driverless cars and wave-powered energy.
Google needs to defend its search stronghold and acquire a foothold in these growing areas, and Mayer will be given the honor and the pressure of delivering on these needs. It's not clear whether Google's reimagining of its social-media strategy--internally code-named Google Me--will roll up into Mayer's domain: Techcrunch has reported that Google mobile czar Vic Gundotra is heading up that project.
But Mayer has now been elevated above Gundotra, perhaps the other most visible face of the company below Schmidt and the co-founders in recent years. Her position on the operating committee gives her the organizational heft to influence Google's decision making and the authority to approve or reject ideas that will impact Google's future.
Google clarified that the near-simultaneous redesign of its management page--which erases all mention of the operating committee--is designed mostly for investor purposes, to highlight the "named executives" that the company is required to list on its proxy statement and disclose their compensation. Still, while Mayer's name no longer appears on that page, the company has bet an awful lot of its future on her ability to produce results.
Google reports its third-quarter earnings on Thursday, and might have more to say about its organizational philosophy at that time.