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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
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
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.