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Thursday, January 26, 2023

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…

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