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A Brief Interview with Google's Matt Cutts

By - September 26, 2006

Matt-Cutts-Logo

Matt is the man who the SEO/SEM world looks to for answers around most things Google related. Over the past month Melanie and I have been having a wide-ranging email exchange with him on spam, the role of humans at Google, and other things. Here’s the result:

Let’s say you decide to leave Google and are asked to write an exact job description for a replacement to do exactly what you do now. What does it say? (We told Matt to be honest, or his options will not vest!)

My official job is to direct the webspam team at Google. Webspam is essentially when someone tries to trick a search engine into ranking higher than they should. A few people will try almost anything, up to and including the mythical GooglePray meta tag, to rank higher. Our team attempts to help high-quality sites while preventing deceptive techniques from working.

As a result of working on webspam, I started talking to a lot of webmasters on forums, blogs, and at conferences. So I’ve backed into handling a fair chunk of webmaster communication for Google. Last year I started my own blog so that I could answer common questions, or to debunk stuff that isn’t true (e.g., inserting a GooglePray meta tag doesn’t make a whit of difference). These days when I see unusual posts in the blogosphere, I’ll try to get a bug report to the right person, or to clarify if someone is confused.

As you pointed out, you’ve become the human voice between Google and webmasters/SEOs. We’ve heard Google needs to manually remove spam sometimes. And even the algorithm-based feed for Google News requires an editorial gatekeeper for selecting sites. Do you think there is a growing role for human presence in Google’s online technologies?

Bear in mind that this is just my personal opinion, but I think that Google should be open to almost any signal that improves search quality. Let’s hop up to the 50,000 foot view. When savvy people think about Google, they think about algorithms, and algorithms are an important part of Google. But algorithms aren’t magic; they don’t leap fully-formed from computers like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Algorithms are written by people. People have to decide the starting points and inputs to algorithms. And quite often, those inputs are based on human contributions in some way.





The simplest example is that hyperlinks on the web are created by people. A passable rule of thumb is that for every page on the web, there are 10 hyperlinks, and all those billions of links are part of the material that modern search engines use to measure reputation. As you mention, Google News ranks based on which stories human editors around the web choose to highlight. Most of the successful web companies benefit from human input, from eBay’s trust ratings to Amazon’s product reviews and usage data. Or take Netflix’s star ratings. This past week I watched Brick and Boondock Saints, and I’m pretty sure that L4yer cake and Hotel Rwanda are going to be good, because all those DVDs have 4+ stars. Those star ratings are done by people, and they converge to pretty trustworthy values after only a few votes.

So I think too many people get hung up on “Google having algorithms.” They miss the larger picture, which (to me) is to pursue approaches that are scalable and robust, even if that implies a human side. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using contributions from people–you just have to bear in mind the limitations of that data. For example, the three companies I mentioned above have to consider the malicious effect that money can have in their human systems. Netflix doesn’t have to worry much (who wants to spam a DVD rating?), while eBay probably spends a lot more time thinking about how to make their trust ratings accurate and fair.



Google recently
added user-tagging to photos. it’s an interesting way to sort search, adding a personal and human dimension yet opening up a can of worms for syntax and keyword variation. Is this social training of human-input going to be applied to other dimensions of search at Google? Requiring labels to gain a critical mass before they become official is clever step, but of course its not immune to automated spamming. From your perspective on quality control, is this going to open up doors for more abuse of Google as a platform?

I personally would love to see more human input into search at Google. But the flip side is that someone has to pay attention to potential abuse by bad actors. Maybe it’s cynical of me, but any time people are involved, I tend to think about how someone could abuse the system. We’ve seen the whole tagging idea in Web 1.0 when they were called meta tags, and some people abused them so badly with deceptive words that to this day, most search engine give little or no scoring weight to keywords in meta tags.

Google took a cautious approach on this image tagging: the large pool of participants and their random pairing makes it harder to conspire, and two people have to agree on a tag. Users doing really weird things would look unusual, and image tagging is easy for people but much harder for a bot. As tagging goes, it’s on the safer end of the spectrum.

I think Google should be open to improving search quality in any way it can, but it should also be mindful of potential abuse with any change.

W3C Schools is listing its supporters’ websites on Page Rank 9 and PR7 pages in exchange for donations, $1000 a pop in cash or trade (http://www.w3.org/Consortium/sup). Speculation on this is buzzing because though W3C is a well respected educational resource many SEO blackhats endorse similar tactics. Does Google consider link selling a type of webspam against Google’s TOS? And if so, should we expect to see some kind of a censure on W3C? Or how does it differ from what Google considers webspam?

I’ve said this before in a few places, but I’m happy to clarify. Google does consider it a violation of our quality guidelines to sell links that affect search engines. If someone wanted to sell links purely for visitors, there are a myriad number of ways to do it that don’t affect search engines. You could have paid links do an internal redirect, and then block that redirecting page in robots.txt. You could add the rel=”nofollow” attribute to a link, which tells search engines that you can’t or don’t want to vouch for the destination of a link. The W3C decided to add a “INDEX, NOFOLLOW” meta tag to their sponsor page, which has the benefits that the sponsor page can show up in search engines and that users receive nice static links that they can click on, but search engines are not affected by the outlinks on that page. All of these approaches are perfectly fine ways to sell links, and are within our quality guidelines.

Did the W3C decide to add the metatag on their own, or was that the result of talks between you and the W3C?



We were happy to talk to people at the W3C to answer questions and to give background info, but I believe they made the decision to add the metatag themselves.

Thanks for the considered responses, Matt!

  • Content Marquee

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.

Cerf, Part 1: Excuse me, but we don’t get a free ride at all

By - July 14, 2006

Vint Cerf Lg-1

Fortune recently ran an interview with Google’s Vint Cerf (I think it’s in the current issue, it’s not up on the site yet). That was unfortunate for Business 2.0, the magazine where I do interviews, because I had recently completed an interview with him as well. Given that B2 is monthly and Fortune comes out every two weeks, Fortune scooped B2, and now the magazine doesn’t want to run my interview.

Well, that’s great for us. Because B2 said I can run it here, a full month ahead of when it would get through B2’s production process, and at greater length.

Vint, who is Chief Internet Evangelist for Google and is widely regarded as one of the fathers of the Internet, does not mince words in this interview. He’s clearly got a point of view, and he is not afraid to explain it. Of note – Cerf understands the Bellhead point of view personally, he spent a fair amount of time at MCI before joining Google….

Here’s Part 1, more coming as I edit it…

———————-

Searchblog: I’ve got a bunch of stuff to ask you. I don’t know if you saw – I posted on my site requesting questions for you…You do read Searchblog, right?!

CERF: Well I actually would like to, finding a few hours between midnight and 3 in the morning.

Searchblog: I knew it … Let’s get to the hot issue right now: Can you define the issue of net neutrality and why is so much at stake right now?

CERF: Okay, so let me try and we’ll see whether it seems to make sense to you. This whole issue arose when (AT&T CEO) Ed Whitacre made some charges in the press that Internet service providers or information service-providers or application service-providers were getting a free ride on his broadband network and he thought that was wrong. And he said that he was going to fix that problem – he was going to make damn sure that companies like Google paid him to get access.

Searchblog: This sounds a little bit like “I’m not making enough money in my core business and I’m a little jealous of Google’s business model.”

CERF: I would have to concur that it sure sounds like that.

Searchblog: Now the response of course is – “Well wait a minute, I’m paying 30 bucks a month for DSL or cable, and I’m sure Google pays its bandwidth bill on time every month. Isn’t this really about the idea of a tiered network?”

CERF: Well, the term “tiered network” turns out to be ambiguous, so let’s hang onto that for just one second. Let me come back to what we believe has been sold to the subscriber and then what we believe is inconsistently being said by the broadband provider. Now I don’t mean to suggest every broadband provider is necessarily behaving this way. Some of them are sitting back, maybe privately hoping that the claim that’s being made (by folks like Whitacre) will somehow be feasible or be achieved and then they’ll jump on the bandwagon.

Here’s what (folks like Whitacre) are saying: “Well, we built this network and we can do anything we want with it. And by the way, the FCC has now essentially released us of any common carrier obligations we ever had, thank you very much, and so we can do whatever we want to and why don’t you just buzz off.”

That sort of grates a little bit. Gee, excuse me, but we don’t get a free ride at all. We spend an awful lot of money being connected to the public Internet backbone, in addition to which we pay a lot of money for our own Internet backbone that links all of our computer centers together at substantial capacity, which is necessary to do what we do.

Moreover, the subscriber has been told (by the telcos and cable ISPs) that if you pay for broadband service, you’ll get access to everywhere on the Internet. But then they’re saying, in the same breath or same paragraph anyway, “Well actually, it’s not quite like that because the places you’ll be able to get to in this broadband mode are only the ones that we’ve done business deals with. So well we’re going to shut out Google unless they pay or, you know, shut out eBay, or Amazon.”

And so this means that the subscriber’s choice has suddenly been circumscribed by what business model the people at these broadband service-providers have been able to invent. My view of their invention is that the business model seems very 20th century and very backwards looking.

Searchblog: In what way?

CERF: They seem to be very focused on video as a service. Lots of people associate broadband and video as being somehow linked at the hip. What they do not understand, apparently, is that people are not necessarily eager to watch video in a streaming mode, limiting themselves to whatever is being transmitted at the moment. And if you’re paying any attention at all to Tivo and iPod and other fairly modern communication services, you’ll find people downloading things and then listening to or watching them later. And if you are no longer watching the video as its being delivered to your hard drive, then you no longer need for it to be delivered in realtime in a viewable form. The broadband providers seem to be reinventing the cable and satellite television service model for the Internet. What mystifies me about this is that they are therefore going after an already hotly completing-for market with a finite revenue stream. So the best they can do is a share of that market. Their entry is not going to increase the market, in my view.

Searchblog: Right.

CERF: They’d be renting or leasing or otherwise paying for content from all the same sources. And all it does is add a competitor who delivers nothing new. For the life of me I do not understand why one would base a business on this 20th century model, when you could be thinking the way the people in the U.K., in New Zealand, in The Netherlands and places like Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore are thinking. What they’re saying is let’s open this broadband pipe up. Let’s make sure that access to it is open in the sense that there isn’t any constraint as to where the subscribers to these services can go on the Internet. Let’s allow innovative new services to enter into the system without constraining them to pay tolls in order to deliver an innovative new service. Let’s look at Yahoo! and Amazon and eBay and Google. Here are four companies that did not need to get permission from the Internet service-provider or to pay a special tariff to the Internet service-provider in order to offer the service.



Part 2 Coming ….

Interview: Jonathan Miller, AOL

By - July 12, 2006

Millerb2

My interview with AOL’s Jonathan Miller is up now on CNN/B2.0.

Excerpts:

..it’s true that too much of our innovation was locked behind the subscriber wall. It was less than a year ago that AOL moved out onto the Web, launching AOL.com, which is such a good broadband portal that our friends at Yahoo (Charts) have redesigned their homepage to look a whole lot like it.

…AIM turns out to be more extensible than I think anybody would have imagined. As it turns out, it can be used for real-time voice communication, not just text. Adding in video chat and other things is another opportunity.

….All the players are trying to do the same fundamental things: e-mail, search, and now social networking. MySpace is the newest entrant – the new kid on that block, if it turns out they have real staying power.



The new entrant before them was Google. Everyone else in the rest of the group -Yahoo, Microsoft, and so on – is more than 10 years old, which I think is important to consider. Achieving one of those primary positions is genuinely difficult; it doesn’t happen every day.

I’m less concerned about them and more concerned about the startups and other companies that might be gaining on us. If a hundred companies achieve the kind of scale we have, then the pie gets much more fragmented. As it is, there’s plenty to go around between Yahoo and us and the others. …

…Are we ready for a partial spinoff that would give us a stock currency of our own? We’re still not quite there. This year we are very much in a process of transitioning the business. And there are very positive signs.

….What’s your takeaway from the Google deal?



Well, I think the process reminded people that AOL has real value on the Web, and it was nice to be wanted. I think that was healthy for our company. We had to decide whether to extend a great partnership with Google or start competing with it. At the end of the day, it was too much of a jolt to leave Google.

And at crunch time, Google indicated a willingness to do some things with us that hadn’t been on the table before, like letting us sell search ads directly to our advertisers and making a $1 billion investment in us. On the other side, with Microsoft, it was difficult to figure out how to run the proposed business.

My Ray Ozzie Interview On Biz 2

By - May 09, 2006

OzzieI’m still not used to the idea that my stuff at Business 2.0 is not behind a paywall. But it ain’t. Here’s my interview with Ray Ozzie. From it:

When the deal went down, people wondered, Was it Groove that was getting acquired, or was it Ray Ozzie?



The answer’s “Yes.”

At such a big company, there’s so much to tackle. What did you do first?



The first few months I spent doing what anyone who sells a company should do – make sure the acquiring party doesn’t screw up the acquisition. Fortunately the culture that we had built at Groove matched the Microsoft Office development culture, and Groove will be part of Office moving forward. After a few months, I started spending a lot more time in Redmond. Before doing anything, I just wanted to get to know people and understand the map of projects. It’s very broad. Every organization is the product of its leaders and its culture and the negative and positive things that have happened to it over time. So I tried to just learn from people there.

The Microsoft culture is famous for its bureaucracy. People joke about how hard it is to get battleship Microsoft to tack. Did you find that to be true?



It’s true in different ways in different parts of the company. The Windows organization has completely different processes than the Office side, which is completely different than MSN. The MSN culture is younger they’re used to more rapid turnaround in getting their products out. Both the Windows and Office sides ship a product with a mentality of 10-year support. The MSN side puts code into an Internet ecosystem where people don’t expect 10-year support. Users expect to be on the latest version all the time.

What’s different at Microsoft?…..

Another Q&A: Toni Schneider of OddPost, Yahoo, and Now Automattic

By - April 19, 2006

Toni S

This is from my Biz 2 column, which just posted on CNNMoney.

From it:

So you’ve left Yahoo, with thousands of employees, to run a company with–how many people?



“There’s five of us.”

In the Valley, some entrepreneurs like to build things and run them. Others like to build them and hand them off once they get to a certain size. Where do you fit?

“I found that my sweet spot is in taking something at the prototype stage, where there’s proof of concept but there isn’t market validation yet. It can then be handed to somebody whose business is to take it to the mass market. It takes a different skill set to just start from scratch and say, ‘I’m just going to sit there for a year and work on this thing, and maybe it’ll work and maybe it won’t.’ That’s more of an inventor.”

A Frank Interview With Jim Lanzone

By - April 18, 2006

LanzoneYou may recall my interview with Gary Flake, which ran earlier this month. I titled that “A Frank Interview With…” and mentioned that it would be one of a series, and just to show I’m not slacking off, here’s the second edition.

This time our victim is Jim Lanzone, Senior Vice President & General Manager of Ask.com. I’ve known Jim for quite a while, and always appreciated his passion for defending, well, the underdog. Read on to see what I mean…..

Google recently acknowledged that it finds the approach Ask has taken with Zoom at least worthy of a hire. What do you make of that?

I think it makes sense. We’ve had a lot of success with our product. As you’ve seen with the tools we’ve built over the past couple of years, we’re still focused on core search and things that help people get what they need faster. Relevant results are like the Model T: a way to get you from point A to point B. But you Logo Askcan do so much more for people. Just as cars evolved beyond a box on wheels, search is evolving beyond “10 blue links.” A relevant link was a novel concept back in 2002, but when people are exposed to tools like Zoom, or Smart Answers, they start to expect more.

It’s also not just what you have under the hood, but how the product is designed. As you can see, we place our Zoom related suggestions on the right-hand side of the page, where others have ads, because we’ve found this to be a natural place for people to look to iterate their searches. Iteration is a common user behavior in search, because of the natural tendency of searchers is to start with one term and then whittle their way, gathering clues, to the right keywords. Zoom related search helps them do this instinctively, without learning how to use it. It’s in the right place and the right time. It is fundamental to people’s search needs, not just an interesting bell or whistle.

When I posted on these topics, a number of folks chimed in saying that Ask isn’t nearly as relevant for things like last names or the name of their business. What is your response to them?

When it comes to algorithmic search, we’re far better than we’ve ever been, but we’re not as good as we want to be. We’re in the middle of some important infrastructure upgrades, so between now and the end of ’06, you’ll see us steadily strengthen our relevance even further. One place we lag in particular is freshness. That will change. Content management and quality control are things we haven’t put as much manpower on yet. That is coming. Mostly our focus has been on algorithms and heuristics, and we believe we have some of the best in the industry. You pointed out some of the benefits of our differentiated ExpertRank (formerly Teoma) ranking methodology, which certainly has a different take on things at times. (For example, try the queries “dc colleges” and “bay area airports”.)

With the “Scoble” example, we somehow missed ranking his new page, so the top result wasn’t right (Google made the same mistake). On the other hand, for the query “Robert Scoble”, we have a Smart Answer at the top of the page with his photo. You pointed out that for “Battelle” we did a better job for the algo results, but we also found you in the Zoom related searches under “John Battelle”, and had a Smart Answer for you too. Again, going beyond “10 blue links” is something we are leading the way on. Relevant links are very important, clearly, but we can do more to get you better information, faster.

So, let’s talk about “getting beyond the blue links.” That’s code for “beyond Google,” which has been a very important partner for Ask, in terms of business model. Where do things stand on going your own way past your Google AdWords deal? And do you think Ask can ever break out of its role as a small player compared to the giants like Yahoo and Google in terms of search traffic?

Our relationship with Google has never been better. I like so many of those guys on a personal level, and we make a lot of money for each other on a professional level. Our interest in building our own ad system is straightforward. In some cases, we make more money if we sell the ads ourselves. In some cases, advertisers want a direct relationship with us. Over time, our own network will strengthen, but that will take time. It’s going very, very well so far. Google gets this and is supportive of our efforts because it makes us a stronger partner for them overall, and helps grow the category overall.

We absolutely compete with Google for users, as we do MSN and Yahoo. In the past we have called this “co-opetiton.” I think it’s easier to conceptualize this using an analogy. Imagine we’re the Fox Network and Google is CBS. Fox tries to create great shows that compete for viewers with CBS, but Fox lets CBS sell its ads for them. If Fox wants to sell some of its own ads, either to try to make more money or because some advertisers want that option, Fox does it themselves. Either way, it’s good for CBS because they know network TV traffic isn’t a zero-sum game, and Fox isn’t going away anytime soon.

In terms of our size, we may be small relative to Google, but I think this needs to be put into perspective in a couple of ways. First, as a business, remember that a 1 point gain in market share for Ask (from 6% to 7% share) is a 15% increase in share of queries. The way our business works, that’s also likely a 15% increase in share of revenue. So just one point of share has an incredible impact on our business growth, and I think people forget that because they’re comparing us to Google, rather than to our own growth curve. As I said, it’s not a zero-sum game.

When it comes to users and traffic, at 6% we may be small relative to GYM, but we’re still a top player in the #1 activity online outside of email. We’re anything but small. Collectively we operate the 6th largest (just passed Amazon last month) Web property in the world. It’s just that you’re looking at us relative to the GYM behemoths, who admittedly are a level above us.

To that end, I would love for people to appreciate what we’re trying to do in competing against them. We’re the underdog here, kind of like Firefox. Google does a good job of presenting themselves as the underdog, and MSN is helping them with the way they act publicly. But to me they are both giants. So back to your original statement, yes, we feel passionately that there is more to search [than] the Google paradigm. Nothing against them, but we are doing some things better, and those who experience it are coming back more often. That is why we’ve grown market share, and hopefully we can accelerate the curve.

One of the most important page-turners for Yahoo and now Google, as well as Microsoft, is mail. Is Ask Mail on the horizon? And what do you make of all the new features at Google – Fusion, Calendar, Finance, etc.?

We prioritize by impact to searchers. Verticals like Finance make sense, because people are searching for that information on Ask already. (Our Finance Smart Answer was launched 3 years ago. To date we haven’t launched a full Finance “channel”, but at some point that could make sense.) This is true of almost all informational categories on the Web. Search is the doorway.

Email would be a tangent for us, currently. Ask has been growing through increases in frequency of use, by improving core search and developing unique search tools. Things like the launch of our new Image search in January, which many insiders have called the best in the industry, and our new Maps, which has received great buzz for its feature set, really drive query volume for us. As we move forward, we’ll add products that are “first cousins” of search, that help you organize and/or do things with the stuff you’ve searched for. I don’t want to give too much away here. But I can assure you that everything will make sense as an extension of our core reason for being: search.

Thanks, Jim. Will you be open to answering Searchbloggers’ questions in the comments once I post this?



Of course!

A Frank Interview with Gary Flake

By - April 05, 2006

Gwf-SmallToday marks the first of what I hope will become a regular series of Q&A interviews on Searchblog. The format is simple – I send an opening question to the luminary in question via email, they respond, and we go from there. First up is Gary Flake, a veteran of Overture, Yahoo and now Microsoft’s vaunted research labs (he’s founder and director of the new “Live Labs.”) Gary and I have known each other since I first began work on the book, and he’s always had a refreshingly frank outlook. I expected that to be tempered by a year at the world’s largest (and oft-criticized) software company, but I was wrong. If anything, Gary has become more outspoken. I’ve bolded the really juicy bits, but see for yourself….

You’ve been at Microsoft for nearly a year now. Are you satisfied with the pace of development on the core search product?

Broadly speaking, yes, but there is always room for improvement. We’ve been laying a foundation for the past year, trying to solve the hardest problems first. Frankly, we’ve left some low-lying fruit hanging on the vine, so to speak. On the good side, we have a rock-solid 64-bit backend architecture (probably the only one in the industry) that can scale almost indefinitely on multiple dimensions. Our relevance framework, built with machine learning technology from Microsoft Research, is now picking up steam and is getting close to parity with the competition. We even have some real product differentiation that we’ve just launched with virtual earth maps, search macros, and the image search experience. But to be honest, we pretty much blew it with the GUI for the past year. Why? There’s no good reason, really. The truth is we’ve had so much going on over the past year that it was simply more fun to focus on the core issues first, which is a mistake typical of engineers. I think the whole industry has been in a bit of a rut with respect to the user experience, and we are more guilty than most, but the good news is that there is a lot of room for improvement and we are now in pretty good shape to experiment more.

Say more about 64 bit architecture. Why is it different? What does it allow you to do with search you can’t with 32 bits? How easy or hard might it be for Google and others to migrate to a similar architecture? And can you tell us a bit more about Microsoft Research? Lastly, if you could – can you give me a specific example about what you did not like about your old UI?

“64 bits” refers to the native address space of the CPUs that we use in our architecture. Having the entire architecture be 64 bit carries several implications that are quite subtle and mostly of interest only to engineers, but I’ll take a shot at highlighting some of the important differences.

First, all search architectures tier their data stores so that the data can reside on relatively slow disks or fast RAM. For performance purposes, you want the most frequently accessed data to be on the fastest store (RAM). A 64 bit system can have vastly more RAM than a 32 bit system, which means that we can have a higher ratio of RAM to disk space (per CPU), versus others in the industry. Second, we’ve only scratched the surface on the possibilities for using advanced hyperlink analysis for web relevance. There are a class of algorithms (like Pagerank) that work well in either 32 or 64 bit systems (technically, because the algorithms can be realized via a linear sweep of hyperlinks). However, there is an even richer class of algorithms that can only be efficiently built on a 64 bit system because you essentially have to have a significant part of the web stored close to a single CPU. So, 64 bit systems pave the way for entirely new forms of relevance that look at how pages relate to one another. Finally, with the bigger address space, we may also see 64 bit systems critical to realizing more sophisticated relevance algorithms that analyze a result set in the aggregate as a final step. In this scenario, you may have a huge amount of data in memory, which 64 bit systems can do just fine. So, in short, it’s a real big deal and it will be more important as the entire industry matures.

Google and others can certainly start to migrate towards 64 bit. In fact, everyone will have to at some point. However, there is a huge cost to make the jump, in terms of hardware, porting existing code, but especially in revamping algorithms to make the most use of the new resources. We took our medicine early because we could (we didn’t have a legacy system as baggage). This is an example of us taking a longer-term view, in the sense that we increased our startup costs, but are now have a more strategic technology platform.

Microsoft Research is possibly the greatest computer science research institute in the world. MSR was also one of the key reasons why I came to MS. MS basically offered me the role of figuring out how to make MSN and MSR even more tightly connected, and the idea of being able to fully leverage MSR towards web search gave me goose bumps. Internally, we talk about what we are working on as being historic, in the sense that we are defining a computer science research agenda that could possibly influence an entire generation of computer scientists. Without MSR as part of our story, we wouldn’t stand a chance at such lofty goals.

What didn’t I like about our old UI? Where do I begin? There is so much to choose from … The fonts inconsistantly rendored and were too big. The damn search box was too small. It made no sense to have redundant buttons, links, and menus — yet we had some of each. Even the size of the page (in terms of raw HTML and CSS) was entirely too large. Our margins weren’t even consistant from browser to browser. So, to be blunt, it sucked.

But I need to also be clear on a couple of related points: none of us had any illusion that this was a pretty UI. We, including the folks who coded it up, hated it. Our team is small and growing and has always had more engineering talent than anything else. And like I said, there were just so many other problems that were more interesting to solve first. So, in the end, we are guilty of indulging our engineering passions first, which is a very human mistake to have made. This situation is also evidence that the executive team has a lot of trust in us. Of course they disliked the UI as much as us, but in the end they let the team decide the priorities – which was the right call for a variety of reasons.

Now, thankfully, we are in a much better place with the UI. In particular, we just launched a new search experience on live.com. And while it is not perfect, I think it shows more UI experimentation than just about anywhere. In the end that is the important thing: not that we nail the UI or any piece on our first try — but that we have a platform, framework, and philosophy that are all in support of trying new things so that we can progressively improve and learn.

Your take is quite refreshing, to be honest, it doesn’t sound like Microsoft. Do you sense the culture there is shifting? Or are you ever frustrated?

“Yes” on both counts, but as an answer to your second question, this says more about me than it does about Microsoft (I have a grumpy old man in me yearning to be free). I don’t think MS is particularly clear in how it communicates things to the outside world. I also think that MS often makes mistakes by trying — wait for it — too hard. Specifically, instead of doing one thing and nailing it, we’ll sometimes do six slightly duplicative things in parallel — each being slightly below critical mass — which can create confusion inside and outside of MS until we’ve had time to sort things out better. So, yes, I get frustrated at times. So it goes. For me, frustration is a biological signal that means I should try harder, which is a good and helpful thing.

I think your first question, about our company culture, is very important, so please forgive the length of this next part.

Let’s talk about people as a preface to culture, because I want to get the “evil” thing out of the way. I know the reputation that MS has with some communities. I was hacking Linux in the early nineties, I have a four digit Slashdot userid, and I’ve personally written over 100,000 lines of open source code. I say all of this to qualify my opinion. Being new to MS, the biggest surprise for me was the people. I knew they were smart. I knew they were driven. I knew they were competitive. But I had no idea they would also collectively tend towards kindness, openness, self-criticism, passion, righteousness, and even uncertainty. These are great people — from the executive team down to the rank and file — these are simply wonderful people in every way.

As for culture, I think a change has been underway within MS, but it’s not the one that you may be thinking of. This isn’t a change about core values, which have been pretty steady as far as I can tell. I think the change is actually a reaffirmation — an increase in confidence so to speak — of old core values. Let me explain. 


People from Redmond often speak of a “platform” while in the valley they speak of an “ecosystem”. Here’s the surprise: both groups are talking about the same thing. To MS, Windows is a platform because it fosters a virtuous cycle in two parts: developers come to the platform because it has the most users; users come to the platform because it has the most software.

In the valley, everyone talks about Web 2.0ish things that all come down to creating something of an ecosystem where people and companies of all sizes can be both producers and consumers. In both cases, we see something of an indirect network effect, where the aggregate value — the whole — is greater than the sum of the parts.

Here’s what’s new: many folks within MS are now realizing that a lot of the stuff that’s real about Web 2.0 — not the fluffy buzzwords but the fundamental and important parts — have actually been part of MS’s core vision and mission for *decades*. Do you believe in the importance of ecosystems? Windows is the biggest one ever, that generates vastly more wealth for third parties than for MS. Do you value the long tail? MS has done more for bringing computing to the masses (both people and small businesses) than any other company. Is the democratization of tools important to you? Desktop publishing and simplified development flourish because of tools like Office and Visual Basic. What about network effects? We’ve created several that have reaped incalculable value to society.

Okay, now I know I am sounding like a corporate drone and I am well aware that for every example above, there are plenty of people in the valley that will bitch about my characterization. When you assume evil, then an ecosystem looks less than well-intentioned. When you assume goodness, then an ecosystem looks like benevolence. The truth is more complex and vastly more interesting.

So look at the facts: MS was pushing Web 2.0 values over a decade ago. It’s the realization that this is the case that’s new for MS. Our vision for where we’ve been, what we know how to do, and where we want to go is now much more crisp and consistent than it has ever been before. We know that helping people to be more successful — seeking win-win dynamics — is a major part of what we do. It’s not new, but clearly connecting the dots between our past and our future is very new and, frankly, downright exciting.

I’m sure all of you have questions for Gary as well. Post them in comments, and maybe we can lure him into the comments thread!

Wow! Time Inc. Gets a Clue

By - January 06, 2006

B2.0-2Way back in 2002, Josh Quittner, who is a pal and also the Editor of Business 2.0, took a risk on a down-and-out dot-com publishing exec and contracted me to write a column for his magazine, the only one left after the Standard and its ilk bit the dust. But when I got the Time Inc. contract (B2’s owners,) I was bereft. I had an issue with the fact that what I wrote would be behind AOL/TW’s paywall. So I requested, nice as pie, that I be able to post my columns here, on this site. Josh agreed, and the rest is history.

Well, all that’s moot now. CNNMoney is picking up my column, and all of B2 for that matter, and it’s all free.

Here’s everything I ever wrote for Josh!



Enjoy, I sure as heck will!