09/14/2012 07:56 EDT | Updated 11/14/2012 05:12 EST

Don't Call it a Comeback: How Yahoo! Can Retake the Lead


If I'm Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo Inc.), I'm thinking: What could really set Yahoo apart, and spark an epic business comeback? Aside from getting better at search, improving social tools, and offering more innovative applications to my user-base -- things that all of my competitors are already doing, and doing well -- what could be Yahoo's saving grace and new competitive edge?

The bold answer to this daunting question is, purpose!

If Yahoo can figure out creative ways to weave the idea of cause and purpose into the biology of what it means to be a Yahoo user, then the former search titan will distinguish itself from its competitors. Why? Because purpose-centric positioning is the great differentiator today, and none of Yahoo's rivals have seized upon this disruptive opportunity yet, though it has been staring them all in the face for a long, long time.

The consumer is demanding that brands -- yes, even public companies, search engines and content platforms -- stand for more than product and profit. We're seeing both large companies (such as GE) and small companies (such as Warby Parker) embrace this philosophy not only as an ethos of social responsibility, but as a driver of word of mouth, customer loyalty, and revenue.

Yahoo should position itself as first-mover in a brave new realm where hyper-connected and hyper-conscious users turn their online interests into concrete social action through Yahoo innovation. Yahoo should aim to become a pioneer as the first socially-responsive web portal by pushing purpose with every query. In so doing, it could accomplish two Herculean feats: (1) revolutionize what it means to navigate online by transforming passive engagement into social impact, and (2) salvage its tarnished legacy from the depths of irrelevance to rise and lead once more.

With the hiring of Mayer -- ex-Google rock star -- Yahoo indicated conspicuously, and intentionally, that it was back in the business of meaning business. It signaled to the doubtful public, to its shareholders, and, perhaps most importantly, to its weary staff around the world, that it's taking its future very seriously, and is ready to finally strap on the gloves again, duke it out with the big boys, and fight hard to regain its once-dominant place at the zenith of the Internet economy.

But if Yahoo wants to really win, it's going to have to be bold. It has gone from leader to after-thought, rarely used, often mocked. But the opportunity here is huge. We all love an underdog, and I think we'd all secretly love to see Yahoo claw its way back to the top of the heap.

Don't call it a comeback -- Yahoo's been here for years. But if it really wants to tower over the competition once again, it'll have to come up with something unique to set itself apart. And in this day and age, that something is purpose.