Former Microsoft Search Chief Bill Bliss On Early Search Missteps

Yesterday I wrote a long piece looking at Microsoft’s moves in search since 1997. Bill Bliss, who I described as overseeing Microsoft’s "first era" of human-powered search, has added some great comments on missteps within the company ranging from not buying search technology earlier and ignoring the Google threat for so long in part because of MSN’s constantly changing management.

Bill’s emailed me some of this material privately in the past, so I’m glad he had a chance to share his perspective publicly. You can read his full comments below or as part of the original story.

Bill’s biggest regret? Not bypassing middle management that wasn’t listening to him scream about the coming threat of Google and going right up to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. As he says: "Microsoft could have been the one to buy Inktomi and Overture instead of Yahoo, and the world would be much different now for both companies."

More in his comments below:

You got the chronology of my tenure at MSN Search more or less right. I actually started in the summer of 1998 but we launched a pure Inktomi version in September 1998, about the time we licensed Looksmart’s directory. In early 1999 we launched the server software with our own relevancy ranking against the Looksmart directory and appended Inktomi results when there weren’t enough relevant results to fill the results page.

A few more tidbits that you and your readers may find interesting…

  • The decision to switch to AltaVista was an awful one, which I objected to strenuously, but I was overruled. The good news is that throughout it all, Inktomi was a great partner and we never turned them off, so when we finally were able to switch back, it was very quick and easy.
  • I think it was about 1999 or 2000 when we first started noticing this search engine called Google growing in MediaMetrix reach about 1.5% PER MONTH. That’s almost unheard of. I knew they were on to something, and alerted MSN management (which changed every few months) every six months or so. I was always told "Search is not core to our business, Google is not a competitor, Yahoo is not the competition, AOL is the competitor to beat, subscription services is how we’re going to win." Hailstorm anyone? Please.
  • It was even worse for John Krass, who was publicly castigated in large meetings at least twice for suggesting that MSN should compete against Google. We had plans to release an MSN Search toolbar twice and both times it was cancelled by senior MSN management. John did a yeoman’s job of trying to convince his management to pay attention to Google, but they continued to ignore Google.
  • In 2002 they re-organized MSN Search yet again and my new boss was Kai-Fu Lee — yes, the same one who’s now at Google as President of Google China after being sued by Microsoft for defecting (after I left for Expedia). One of the reasons I left MSN Search was that Kai-Fu told me, it’s pretty clear Microsoft is not going to invest in web search, so you might as well work on search technology for a product that Microsoft does care about (Windows). He was right, so I did.
  • If there’s one thing I regret, it’s that I didn’t bypass MSN management and communicate the importance of web search to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. I was a good soldier and didn’t go above my boss’s head, which in hindsight was a mistake. That said, I would have done it differently – Microsoft could have been the one to buy Inktomi and Overture instead of Yahoo, and the world would be much different now for both companies…

Related Topics: Channel: Strategy | Microsoft: Bing | Microsoft: General | Stats: History


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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  • Tic Howard

    The evolution in search is not over. “Going vertical”, AI, and heuristics have already almost run their course. What’s required now are the same ingredients that might have served Microsoft well once before — a little bit of imagination, foresight, and an open mind.

  • NunoH

    Gates is not such a big visionary as he is pictured… I remember that he did not think the Internet would be that big of a deal, a couple of years ago. It took him a long time to catch up. Microsoft is a very slow beast.

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