Jan 29, 2013 · 4 minutes

Under some of Yahoo's previous CEO's, the quarterly conference calls discussing financial earnings used to involve a lot of encouraging spin. The ever-elusive turnaround was right around the corner. The company's nth makeover was sure to revive the site's appeal. Defections of key staff was balanced by die-hard employees who bled purple. And so on.

There is a subtly different tone in Yahoo's earnings calls under Marissa Mayer – more conservative in outlook, an optimism tempered by caution. Mayer talks about all the plans in the works to revive the company, since that is what a turnaround involves. But the one hour-plus call could be boiled down to 12 words Mayer said in her outlook for this year: “While the road to growth is certain, it will not be immediate.”

In some important respects, Yahoo is growing. Its revenue excluding traffic acquisition costs rose 2 percent in 2012 and 4 percent in the last quarter alone. Its non-GAAP net profit rose 28 percent to 32 cents a share, above the 28-cent figure analysts had been expecting. After the news, Yahoo's stock was trading around $20.70, a 2 percent rise over its official close Monday, a 42 percent improvement over its price last summer and the highest level it has seen in more than five years.

As nice as all that is, it doesn't signal that Yahoo is yet growing in the ways that everyone expects it to under Mayer. Under previous CEOs, Yahoo saw profits grow even if revenue didn't, and its stock price vacillated up and down, up and down. Yet the company never regained the allure that it had even a decade ago, as a place on the Web where you wouldn't mind if others knew you hung out there, as a company where you might even want to work.

Mayer is right that that kind of growth and allure is still far away. The financials are decidedly mixed. Yes, revenue is growing again, reversing several years of revenue declines. But it's below the 36-percent growth Google saw last quarter. Yes, Yahoo's search-ad revenue is growing, but its display-ad revenue is declining. Much of the recent gains in Yahoo's stock was driven by the $1.45 billion the company spent on buybacks. Yet that gain may be contributing to employee moral Mayer spoke of.

Overall, after her first full quarter as CEO, Mayer appears to be making a lot of the right moves needed to get there. Which is why I found encouraging the tone of modest optimism in her comments. When executives were blindly bullish in the past about Yahoo's prospects, investors never really bought it.

It almost sounds like Yahoo is keeping the expectations lower than it needs to. Ken Goldman offered his first earnings guidance as Yahoo CFO. Yahoo is estimating that revenue ex-TAC will come in between $4.5 billion and $4.6 billion this year. The midpoint of that range marks a 1.8 percent rise in revenue for this year. That's a rate even slower than the 2 percent increase Yahoo showed in 2012.

The guidance was so conservative that one analyst pointedly asked Goldman on the call whether he was shifting to a more conservative earnings philosophy than Yahoo had embraced in the past. Goldman deflected that question. But the conservative guidance is echoed in Mayer's comments that 2013 will be a year of hard work, if steady improvement.

Conservative guidance can be a risky game to play with investors. It's been practiced by companies like Apple, Google, and Intel when they were at the top of their game, so that the two-step dance of promising low and delivering big became a badge of success. But if a company is in turnaround and issues guidance that seems too conservative, it can telegraph an unwanted message: that even the management lacks faith in its own vaunted turnaround.

In the call, Yahoo outlined several broad and vague goals for this year. It's redesigning core properties, increasing more usage from a broader demographic, and figuring out – like everyone else – how to make a mint off of mobile ads. At the same time it's trimming costs (headcount shrank 18 percent to 11,500 in 2012 alone) and vowing to invest in R&D projects like ad technology and mobile.

If it all works out, Yahoo has a shot to become, as Mayer repeats like a mind-numbing mantra, “a digital daily habit” for hundreds of millions of Web users. A core part of that plan seems to be adding premium content from big media companies and building targeted content/ad campaigns like the one Yahoo staged for the 2012 Olympics.

It's not surprising to hear Mayer and Goldman low-ball expectations and set the stage for a turnaround that could take years to fulfill. But it is encouraging. It's a departure from the pattern of earlier CEOs touting turnarounds and later apologizing and explaining why it wasn't happening. It shows the company is realistic about the hard task ahead. I still think Yahoo's return to glory is something of a long shot. But seeing the CEO act like it's a long shot makes a turnaround seem that much more likely.

[Photo courtesy of Picture Perfect Pose on Flickr]