A Search Product CEO – Necessary To Win The Search Engine Game?

With Jim Lanzone being replaced as Ask.com’s CEO, I thought it time to do a piece that’s been banging about in my head. Do successful search companies have to have CEOs or top execs who "grew up" from the search product side? The jury is probably still out, but it’s interesting to look back at each of the major players and understand where those in charge have come from.


No question — both Google co-presidents Larry Page and Sergey Brin are search product folks. They literally built the first version of Google and were very involved with how the search engine developed in Google’s initial years.

Today, Google’s far more than a search engine. It offers a range of portal features, is developing into a stealth social network, is a major ad network, and more. The two — along with CEO Eric Schmidt, who is NOT a search product person — sit above all this. Does it really make a difference at this point that they have a search product background?

I’d argue yes. While search development is now run by a range of execs, from Marissa Mayer through Peter Norvig through Udi Manber and more, I think part of Google’s success remains due to the fact that at the very top, you’ve got two people who remember being on the search product frontlines, building a product, and working day-to-day in the trenches to please the searchers. Despite Google’s many activities today, the duo grew up with search, and I believe they still view it as a primary product worth protecting.


I’ve covered Yahoo longer than Google, by virtue of Yahoo being older than the Big G. And in its heyday, Yahoo was THE search engine that drove traffic to sites and was used by searchers in droves. Terry Semel did NOT take Yahoo down the portal path, but certainly when he took over, the company seemed to be less interested in search and more about building its own content.

To be fair, during Semel’s reign, Yahoo purchased Overture as well as Inktomi, AltaVista, and AllTheWeb, giving it a huge head start over Microsoft to compete against Google in the search space. And today, Yahoo remains well ahead of Microsoft.

Also, while Semel was in charge, Yahoo did move forward with much search development. But from afar, it always felt like the company was still eying being a destination, that the goal was to own properties in the way a Hollywood executive would.

Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang took over last June. Like Larry and Sergey, he was a search product person — he, with David Filo, built Yahoo and also worked on the frontlines to please searchers. That experience is in his blood, and I expect it will help make the difference as Yahoo goes forward.

In a fortunate coincidence, I happened to be on the Yahoo campus last October when there was a company-wide event celebrating the relaunch of Yahoo search. Yang took part, both in a quiz game to demonstrate the new search features to Yahoos, as well as to pump them up. He talked about the importance of search, how crucial it was, and it came across as real — that he was really believing that, as I expect he does.


It was real sadness to read last night that Jim Lanzone was leaving Ask. To me, Jim is the search product guy "done good." Unlike Google and Yahoo, he was someone who worked on the search frontlines and worked his way to the top, becoming Ask’s CEO in April 2006. No, Ask didn’t dent Google’s share, which is suggested as one reason behind the management change. But compared to Microsoft, Ask held share — which is a huge accomplishment.

The key thing about Jim was that he really cared about search. He was passionate about it, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for me or others who cover search to get an email out of the blue from him, riding our butts if he disagreed with a review or passing along points he thought were important.

In particular, Jim was desperate to see search leap forward and abandon the "ten blue links" mode it had been stuck in for ages. That particular phrase, by the way, if not coined by Jim certainly was popularized by him to explain how search was stuck in a DOS-era like interface. Ask3D was his baby, launching the most revolutionary search interface any major search engine had tried and bringing Ask along the Search 3.0 path.

I’m sure the other major search engines will start to break further away from the "one big column of links" mode. When they do, Jim will have been the trailblazer that lead the way.

Still, Ask3D didn’t improve Ask’s fortunes — so did having a "search guy" really help? Time will tell. We’ll see how the new execs drive things forward. With luck, they’ll continue to let Ask be innovative and unique with search and focus on growing traffic by finding better ways to spread the word about Ask plus staying focused on core relevancy.


Microsoft is the Johnny-come-lately to search. It has continued to generally lose search share despite huge investment, and it is also the only one of the major players where the people at the top — Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer – have no search background.

Microsoft didn’t see Google coming. Even before Google, they didn’t see a need to develop their own internal crawling tools, and the effort from 2003 onward to take on Google has largely seen management changes, constant relaunches, promises of "give us six months" alternating with "it’s early days," but in the end still playing third place to Google and Yahoo.

I’ve got no doubt that Microsoft sees search as important, but sorry, I can’t say that the top execs feel it in their bones the way the other companies have. I have one (perhaps biased) example to demonstrate this: I could never get either Gates or Ballmer to keynote a search conference I’ve organized.

It’s probably been three years now that I’ve worked on this. I know the search teams at Microsoft would like to see either of them do it, but it clearly hasn’t been a priority. Gates will speak at small security conferences, does CES, but address a huge audience of search marketers — people who are funding a big chunk of the future of his company? Apparently not worth the time.

In contrast, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt from Google both understood the importance of addressing that audience and have made time. Jerry Yang from Yahoo did. Steve Berkowitz, Jim Lanzone, and Barry Diller from IAC did. Personally, I think either Gates or Ballmer need to have the experience that Diller had. On stage with me in 2006, in front of an audience of perhaps 3,000 people, he asked who all the people were. "Those are your customers," I replied — and those customers were also searchers, and they also came away impressed that the top person at Ask had come out to address them (I know, because I spoke to many people who remarked about this). It demonstrated real seriousness.

Microsoft is in the search game, and don’t get me wrong, no sour grapes on the keynoting failures –  I’m glad they are there. I want them to successfully keep up the pressure on Google and Yahoo, as well as Ask, so that search improves overall. But does it make a difference that the top execs may feel search is something they "have to do" rather than want to? Maybe. Maybe, as Rand Fishkin recently suggested, Microsoft needs to let Live Search have more independence (and yeah, go back to MSN).

Rand’s not the first suggest this — others have said similar things over the years — but it’s a good reminder. Would an MSN with someone from out of the search trenches stay focused on search, and be more successful? I honestly don’t know. I can only say that at this point, the two that Microsoft is chasing most have search folks way up at the top.

For more on the Ask management change, see discussion at Techmeme.

Related Topics: Ask: Business Issues | Ask: Employees | Channel: Industry | Google: Business Issues | Google: Employees | Microsoft: Business Issues | Microsoft: Employees | Yahoo: Business Issues | Yahoo: Employees


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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