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Interview: BIll Gross

By - July 28, 2006

B GrossA while back I posted a note asking you all who you’d like to see interviewed here on Searchblog. The top vote getter was Bill Gross, of Goto/Overture, Picasa, Knowledge Adventure, and Snap fame. (He also starred in Chapter 5 of my book). Bill was gracious enough to agree to an email interview, and even more gracious to agree to answer some of your questions in the comments section, when time permits.

As those of who who’ve read The Search know, I’m a fan of Bill and his work. From Chapter 5:

By his own account, Gross has been starting companies since he was

thirteen. His problem was never ideas. No, he, in fact, has way too

many of those. His problem was scale—how could he possibly start

companies as quickly as he could dream them up?

Gross started in a linear fashion, building companies one at a

time. He’d grow them till he got bored or distracted (or both); then

he’d sell them. He funded his first year of college by selling solar en-

ergy conversion kits through ads in the back of Popular Mechanics.

While still an undergraduate (at the California Institute of Technol-

ogy in Pasadena), Gross hacked up a new high-fidelity speaker de-

sign and launched GNP, Inc., to sell his creations (GNP stood for

Gross National Products—an indication of Gross’s sense of humor

as well as an underdeveloped sense of modesty).

But Gross had reason to boast: GNP, Inc., grew to claim number

seventy-five on Inc. magazine’s 1985 list of the 500 Fastest-Growing

Companies. When he graduated, he sold the speaker business to his

college partners and started a software company that presaged much

of the rest of his life’s work. The company, GNP Development, al-

lowed computer users to type natural language commands that the

computer would translate into the arcane code needed to execute spe-

cific tasks. In other words, Gross’s company created a program that

in essence let you “talk” to the computer in plain English, as opposed

to computer code. Gross’s program was a small step toward Silver-

stein’s Star Trekinterface (as discussed in Chapter 1)—the holy grail

of nearly everyone in search today.



Searchblog: You’ve had tremendous success over your career, and in particular with search (Magellan, Goto/Overture, Picasa, etc.). But the world has woken up to search – and Google seems to gain market share monthly. Yet you are trying to once again take on the world with Snap. What makes you feel like there’s still an opportunity there?



Grosss: I’ve always thought that search is extremely important, but my interest in it has always been very personal in that I’ve always been trying to make things that “I” would really want. With Magellan, I wanted to be able to view my files faster than DOS allowed back then. With Goto, I wanted a way to remove the spam at that time from the Top 10 listings at the search results I was seeing. The pay model seemed like the best way to do it, and although ridiculed at first, really took off. And then again with Picasa, we really wanted a way to browse and organize our photos better than the PC-based tools allowed at that time.

Snap is very similar, in that a team of us at Idealab just brainstormed about what things we would like to have that would make search more productive for us. It might not be for everybody, but we feel there is a lot of room for innovation in particular areas, and we’re extremely excited to pursue that. I absolutely agree with you that the world has woken up to search, but that is far from saying that every idea in search has been done, and thus it is very exciting to us.

What do you make of Google? When folks ask you for your unvarnished opinion of the company, what do you say? What is its biggest weakness? Strength?

I think Google is an amazing company. They have a money machine, and they continue to introduce a broad array of new advertising offerings. I think they are turning out to be one of the best competitors in the history of business — and they have shown that with their ability to go up against MSFT and stay ahead. That’s a very impressive feat.

I think their biggest strengths in order, are their profit margins, their brand, their core relevance algorithm, their number of advertiser relationships, and their many smart mathematicians and developers. I think their only weakness, and it’s small, is the increasing challenge they will have to keep up their rate of innovation now that they are becoming such a large company.

I have to ask, given that you starred in a chapter in my book, what you thought of that chapter, and if perhaps you disagree with my characterization of you as a bit wistful that perhaps GoTo could have become Google, so to speak?

I don’t recall how it came across in your book, but I am certainly not wistful. I think Goto “did” become Google <smile> as I think 99% of Google’s revenues come from pay per click. Seriously, Google did an amazing job of building upon Goto’s early success.

Seriously also, we’re honored to have played a part in causing such a fundamental and profitable shift in the internet advertising space over the last 10 years.

Do you have any ideas about what search might look like in five or ten years? Do you think pure search sites will continue to prosper? How might they be different from today?

I do think pure search sites will continue to prosper, but I also think that there will be many new kinds of specialized search that continue to surprise us. I just made up a little table of the searches I do per day over the last 20 years, looking at some key milestones, like when I started using email heavily, and then when Netscape took off, and then when the first search engine companies went public, and then again when new tools came out, like X1 for searching email, iTunes for searching music, my TomTom for searching for locations.

Overall, I find myself increasing my searching from a few searches per day at the beginning of the 90’s to probably 40-50 searches per day now, but that includes my daily email and file searches with X1, searches with Snap and Google, patent searches, music searches, and so on.

So I think that search in the future is going to continue this march, impacting our lives with, say 25% compound annual growth in our usage. And I think search will continue to find a greater and greater place in our daily lives, where it’s just embedded in nearly everything we do, to find information, entertainment, friends, places, and 10 more things that are as hard to imagine now as it would have been 10 years ago that I would type 3 characters, then see some album art, and then click play.

Would you be open to answering a couple of questions from the Searchblog readers when we post this?



Yes, I’d be happy to answer some questions as long as it’s not overwhelming in time.


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10 thoughts on “Interview: BIll Gross

  1. KING TROLL says:

    As a loyal reader, I think i speak for everyone here when i say, “Really Battelle, Bill Gross? Who gives a shit.”

    Next you’ll be telling us you want to interview Scott Mcneally or Steve Case.

    Hey , cheer up though bud, I did click on your ads 4 times today so far and even went as filling out a fake online form!

  2. sebastien says:

    Bill Gross,
    as a man with a long story of building disruptive businesses, what do you think of the current craze around social networking web sites and how they can (search ) monetize their huge traffic ?

  3. PXLated says:

    Well, the first poster certainly has the right handle!

  4. hoy says:

    Bill,

    I too am a fan of your work — with Google currently testing the CPA model, how do you plan to scale up the traffic on Snap.com? will you be launching (online?) ad campaigns to aggresively promote it? I work in the online media space and had wanted to run a test on Snap but was told to hold off because traffic is still too low, I like the product and am anxious to test it.

  5. SorenG says:

    Nice interview, John. Mr. Gross has certainly been an extraordinary innovator. I like Snap.com as well, and wish it success. But in terms of competing with Google and their weaknesses, I am surprised by the comment, “I think their only weakness, and it’s small, is the increasing challenge they will have to keep up their rate of innovation now that they are becoming such a large company.”

    Yeah, that may be a weakness, but geez, if that is all he sees, I am not sure how successful he will be. One giant weakness of all the search engines is that they are limited to existing information on the web — they cannot help emerge relevant information people may seek. The information that exists on the web pales in comparison to all the information that people seek. So then, how do emerge the most relevant information — that Google is not doing. Yahoo Answers is trying to do this a little.

    There is also the weakness of lacking a social network and will the youth of tomorrow for example on MySpace be able to search using the knowledge from that network in a way that does not need Google as much? Search (and much more) could be more “network based.” That is another potential weakness I see.

    My follow-up question is actually more on innovation. “Since you have been trying to bring potentially powerful ideas and innovations to scale for many years, what makes something hit or miss? Certainly luck and timing are important, but have you noticed other factors?”

  6. DavidT says:

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for taking the time for the interview and to answer some blog reader questions. I enjoyed your interview with Mr. Battelle and am dissappointed by the comments of some of my fellow readers.

    Given your proximity and relationship with CalTech and your comments about Google’s mathematical prowess, how important is one (non-founder / non-ceo) or a few individuals to the the success of a company. If for example Google didn’t have quite the mathematician firepower you cite do you think that would really make a difference or not? Have you had a company around which the technologist’s expertise was so central that without that person the company would not have existed and/or not had the success it had?

    Thanks again for your time.

  7. SNAP

    SNAP is simply a BRILLIANT idea – not only aesthically pleasing, but interesting and enjoyable, and marketed effectively.

    However…..
    There are a few concerns – the SERPs are still the bottom line. At this point they are FAIR.

    One good strategy would be to take the Yahoo Mindset model, and create a bar and lever that goes from Commercial to Referential for each SERP, to modify them in real time.

    Another good strategy would be to create a SNAP Meta Search that would encompass Google Yahoo and MSN and allow the user to use a GYM lever to EMPHASIZE the serps or any Search Engine of to varying degress in real time.

    __________________________________________

    OVERTURE

    In reference to GoTo/Overture, the success was very much dependant on Yahoo and MSN adopting it.

    It does not appear that it could have become a player on its own – which is why is was ridiculed at first.

    The rationale of creating a pay per click model because the first 10 organic listings on the SERPs were spammy – was certainly NOT the ULTIMATE answer. It was a band-aid approach wich illustrated little faith in the future of Search Engines ALGOS to become relevant

    But one good factor about GoTo was that it did allow the small business or newbie to get some of the e-commerce revenue that would probably have been completely eaten up by the large rich companies. And of course, the revenue it helping Search Engines Develop into the 21st century

    BTW:

    JB, MC just responded to your “DEAN” Ranking topic on this blog

    Oh, Search Engines WEB :-)

  8. Gopi says:

    Bill, what do you think of idealab portfolio companies like big.com which even though have a different stated mission (big lettered search results) derrive most of their traffic and revenue from search arbitrage that is adword -> adsense.

  9. Bill – did you build SNAP with the future of online advertising in mind or as a *transition* to what you think will be the future needs of online advertisers and publishers?
    You called the PPC shot exactly right years before it went mainstream. I think Gooogle’s added insight was that you needed to separate ads from quality results in a dramatic way but then make the ads incredibly relevant to the search.

  10. Tony says:

    i think that overture search suggestion tool is inacurate.