Kara Swisher

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Digital’s Deadliest Catch, Part Two: The MicroHoo Search Transition Team’s Nelson and Morrissey Speak!

Yesterday, BoomTown posted Part One of an interview with Microsoft’s Greg Nelson and Yahoo’s Mark Morrissey.

The pair (pictured here) are in charge of a two-year effort to coordinate a massive search and online advertising partnership, the result of a deal the companies struck last year.

It is critical they get it right, as Microsoft (MSFT) and Yahoo (YHOO) have a lot riding on the success of the effort, which is an attempt to catch up with search giant and dominant market leader Google (GOOG).

The companies–one from Washington state and the other from Silicon Valley–have a combined share of close to 30 percent, and the hope is that together the partnership is a better offering to both advertisers and consumers.

We’ll see about that, of course, but here’s the rest of what they had to say about the attempt in all its gory details:

MARK MORRISSEY: Let’s talk a little bit about–hopefully this won’t be too boring–but let’s talk a little bit about the execution process, because then this will give you the insight.

So, remember, Greg said we had about 25 people in each of our respective transition teams, that basically there’s a lead, and they’re all mirrored for each of the major elements of the program. Each of them, they all have their own execution structures, right, because they have whole teams of people that are working on their stuff.

So, we basically…Greg and I lead the overall transition. There are three primary areas: The algo transition, the paid search transition, and all sales and marketing. That third part is maybe the biggest of the three.

Then the 25 underneath that group, and then there’s hundreds and in some cases thousands of people underneath them in support of that.

So, they have each of their own weekly cadence of when they get together and how they make their decisions. That rolls all up to Greg and I, and Greg and I are responsible for what we call the plan of record that sets the milestones and locks the scope and the sequence of markets.

We completed our plan of record, except for the sequence of markets, because we’ve not finalized that, but all the rest of it, the scope, the timing, major milestones. We signed that off in what we call our joint operating team that meets weekly up here. And that’s just about 16 people on the joint operating team.

GREG NELSON: Yeah, more or less, all your core leads.

MARK MORRISSEY: We meet weekly. We make basically the scope change control decisions, any changes in milestones.

So, that’s how we control the overall program, keep it on schedule; we look at confidence levels, sign off on road maps, final signoff, that kind of stuff gets handled there.

Then once a month each of us…so, I meet with [Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz]. So, I work for Carol. I meet with Carol’s staff, give her staff a full briefing. Greg meets with the executive steering committee.

And then about every six or eight weeks, Carol wants to get together.

So, we have real, unbelievable top-down support and engagement, and we have a formal decision-making process that goes all the way down from the individual sub-element of the program up to a common place that we guide and make decisions on.

BOOMTOWN: And going forward–what I’m thinking about is things that happen later that you might want. All of a sudden Google is doing search by mental telepathy, for example.

MARK MORRISSEY: I heard about that one, yeah.

BOOMTOWN: Whatever they’re doing.

MARK MORRISSEY: It’s going to take them a long time to get that done.

BOOMTOWN: Well, they’re aliens. I told you, they’re aliens. No one believes me.

So, they decide to do something that you need, or else you like come up with some grand new idea that Google hasn’t thought of. How does that go into place?

GREG NELSON: Well, I mean, it could be…it would probably start informally, right? So, Mark and I either talk or email basically every day.

MARK MORRISSEY: Usually many times.

BOOMTOWN: I’m talking about year four.

GREG NELSON: Yeah, I know, but I’m just saying the strength of the relationship is in large part…you know, this is the pivot point. You’re sitting with the two guys to try and pivot this thing both up and down.

More likely than not, like just before you were coming up here, we were trading notes on a couple different processes that we’re trying to build or checking in on one thing or another.

So, if [Microsoft Online Services President Qi Lu] gets a big brainwave about the next big thing we’re going to do in search, and we’re going to build it into the API, probably what happens, because I get asked to do this 50 times a week, is, “Hey, why don’t you chat with Mark about that and see if Yahoo has got any interest.”

So, you’ve got this really high-frequency, pretty high-fidelity conversation, and then we might say, okay, yeah, that’s interesting, like let’s go activate it in the sales track and in the ops track and let’s pull in some of our leads, let’s brainstorm it, and then you’d push it in both directions.

MARK MORRISSEY: Right, because it has to fit into both companies’ road maps, right, and then what sales and marketing does, and if it’s customer facing it affects what sales is going to do.

GREG NELSON: And then you’d say, okay, we have this plan of record, that’s a big enough one, wow, that’s an amazing idea, let’s change the plan of record, and then we have a formal process to do that kind of change.

MARK MORRISSEY: And four years from now the plan of record won’t be around transition, it will be around what’s the next set of releases, what are our market objectives, how are we going to go.

BOOMTOWN: Let’s talk about that, what the next, when you’re not as you’re thinking this all the time on a daily basis, what is from your perspective the next thing in search or things that are further along.

GREG NELSON: Next big idea?


GREG NELSON: Is that what you mean?


GREG NELSON: Yeah, we can come back to that one. I’ll try and think up something really smart by the time we get back to it.

BOOMTOWN: Okay. So, sales and marketing.

MARK MORRISSEY: Yeah, so like I said, one of, if not the most important area for long-term success, is around sales and marketing. There’s a rather interesting and complicated setup here where we have a larger sales team with a little bit more experience, and then each of the regions, right, will have their sales teams. The sales team will still report to [Yahoo U.S. head Hilary Schneider] to run the overall thing, but the sales teams report regionally. And yet they have to learn adCenter.

So, there’s just a tremendous amount of training, right, to bring the Yahoo team up on adCenter, because I think the most important thing is not the transition, it’s optimizing on behalf of every advertiser after the transition, to achieve their market objectives.

There’s just a humongous amount of training broken up into four courses, huge investment that the Yahoo team is making in the training materials and the man-hours and all that preparation work that they have with their customers. All the customer communications that are happening now, we’re starting to do joint communication events, we had a big search alliance forum in Seattle two weeks ago.

GREG NELSON: Yeah, the search and marketing forum was here, and so we brought customers in a day before to just spend a day with Microsoft and Yahoo to learn about the search alliance.

We got up on stage first and sort of told the vision and took just open Q&A and said, what do you want to talk about, and then we had breakout groups with customers just to say what are you really interested in, what does a successful transition look like to you, what services or kind of information do you need.

This is an area where you could easily be in tension, right, or where you could have conflict between your two sales forces. That’s been so much easier than I would have guessed, because of the maturity and professionalism.

We still handle what we call standard advertisers. So, if you are not a hand-sold kind of premium customer, but you come directly to the platform, then you come to Microsoft, because you’re really just coming to adCenter. Otherwise, you’re with Yahoo and Yahoo is your sales force.

BOOMTOWN: And I assume if you ever got to a display agreement struck, that would be a similar.

MARK MORRISSEY: I can’t comment on display, but there’s definitely a synergy between search and display, as you well know, yeah.

[But] I think I should talk about two things that we haven’t covered. One is about the benefits of the combined marketplace, and then also we haven’t mentioned anything about where we are in terms of the current progress, because it’s actually from my perspective pretty phenomenal in terms of how much we’ve gotten done.

Starting with the unified marketplace, one of the biggest benefits here in a scale business is having a sufficient level of volume in a single buy, with a single campaign, a single set of optimizations, to help advertisers to achieve their marketing objectives.

So, by combining each of our respective share numbers, it now produces really for any sizable advertiser close to 30 percent, plus or minus, right, depending on a couple things in the U.S., and that’s a must buy.

GREG NELSON: Lots of upside.

MARK MORRISSEY: We’ve got work to do.

GREG NELSON: Unlimited potential.

MARK MORRISSEY: Our Yahoo consumers who want to stay on Yahoo search, and we believe that because of the relevance of Microsoft’s results and the rest of the stuff we’re going to put around it, and how we wrap search into the overall experience, we shouldn’t give consumers any reason to go anywhere else to search. That should just lift share in and of itself.

GREG NELSON: The other nice thing, both if you want to look at it that way, is the more lopsided the share, the more enthusiastic advertisers and publishers are about the search alliance.

We have lots of friends all around the world rooting for us and asking how they can help.

MARK MORRISSEY: So, the benefit of a unified marketplace is that advertisers, you know, today they spend most of their time on Google, a little less time on Yahoo, less time on adCenter, and now we’re going to give them one system, one buy, with more clicks, which gives you more consistent performance. Their time is better spent on that optimization.

And not only does that generate just natural lift across the marketplace, but the main byproduct is it produces better ads. Better ads help produce a better search experience, better search experience and all positive…to feed the positive virtuous cycle.

We’ve gotten outstanding feedback, not that every single advertiser is happy, because there are some advertisers that would like to see maybe a non-liquid marketplace, because that was good for them. But, by and large, you look across the base, our customers are very happy.

The biggest thing is they want us to do it with quality, and they want us just to be transparent with where we are along the process.

So, can we switch to talk about where we are?


MARK MORRISSEY: So, we signed in December. We have regulatory clearance, commencement in February, and we got to plan of record in May. We’ve been coding like mad, sales, market teams working through their plans. And we are now in the testing phase, which is really significant.

We still have coding to do, there’s a couple more really significant releases that we have to do together before the paid transition can occur. But right now we’re in the testing phase.

We are well into the testing phase for algo, and we’re starting the testing phase for paid. I think what I said at analyst day, because I did show that one example from that, and that was we are continuing to progress right along our testing plan. A huge achievement on Friday, we got to 100 percent of a certain level of testing, and so far so good.

But the hardest work is still in front of us, but if you just think of it, we’re chipping away week by week by week.

That requires all this complexity to work, right, because a query has to come to Yahoo, we’ve got to send it off through Microsoft’s API and we’ve got to get the results, and then we’ve got to put all of our other stuff around it and deliver the whole page experience.

BOOMTOWN: In speed.

MARK MORRISSEY: In speed, that’s right, that’s right.

BOOMTOWN: And you’re also testing the advertiser experience.

MARK MORRISSEY: Right. They’re separate, okay. We are going to run bucket tests of them together and separate, as you’d expect, but the actual traffic switch can be done separate, algo versus paid.

Right now we’re in the testing phase, and it’s going as well…it’s going better than I had hoped it would go. I mean, it’s not to say that we are in the clear on this, but, in terms of ramping up that process, checking off our weekly milestone, the testing process is going really well so far.

BOOMTOWN: And the people at Yahoo in that area are pleased with it? Because they’re again the customers in a weird way.

MARK MORRISSEY: We have a lot of work to do, too. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re all just customers here, but yeah, I mean, like we were skeptical about how quickly some of this work could get done, how quickly the relevance numbers could get achieved. We were confident Microsoft was the right choice. And it’s so far, so good. The things are working as we had hoped. Relevance is really good. I said that at analyst day the relevance is really good, and we’re cautiously optimistic.

BOOMTOWN: And the other thing that’s interesting to me now is the thing that Google can’t search, and neither can you is a lot of the people data in Facebook and all the social networking sites that get very deep and complex.

GREG NELSON: Part of your question about the future of search may be more a cooperation, really driven by consumer demand for those parts of the Web to become more open, which would be great.

There are some companies that don’t necessarily want to participate, but if consumers either vote with their feet or apply enough pressure, that that stuff should open up.

At some point maybe it just becomes overwhelming. You know [Yahoo Chief Product Officer Blake Irving], who’s now at Yahoo. One of the things he worked on really hard here when he was at Microsoft was interoperability between our two messaging platforms.

There is an example where really the consumer value is very obvious, very powerful, and eventually it broke through. You may find the same in the sort of non-crawlable parts of the Web, because when people think of search-oriented, keyword-based navigation of information as something that they expect, if you can’t get to some type of data through that, they may just stop using it, because it’s too inconvenient.

MARK MORRISSEY: I think that’s kind of the point I was trying to make earlier is that the search experience has to evolve significantly.

And I’ll call it the traditional search if the consumer knows exactly what they’re looking for, and they’re going to go through page after page of results. That’s yesterday’s search game. Search is more navigational now, it’s definitely more social, and helping users to find information that they’re looking for in a more natural way, rather than just a query and going through pages of blue links. We think that’s really critical.

By leveraging Microsoft’s huge investments in I’ll call it the traditional aspect of search, that always has to happen, right, the indexing, the crawling and the ranking is huge, hugely important, and useful, absolutely, and then layering on top of that two companies really focused on evolving the future of the search experience, and each of us having our own skills.

GREG NELSON: Just getting back to sort of what people want or what they expect, I assume you saw some of the research that we did when we were designing Bing. It’s something like over 60 percent, something like 65 percent of search sessions are unsuccessful.

So, the future of search is not just improving relevance, but also bringing people the answer so that your percentage of sessions that are successful goes very close to 100 percent, and the amount of time that you spend in that navigational part of the session has to get smaller and smaller and smaller.

The decision engine sort of positioning, the thing that led us in that direction was that very long term bet that you can understand the intent of the user, and then translate that into a different form of relevance, and you can serve up increasingly rich, not links, because links are just a way to end up somewhere else that you may not know anything about, but serve up high quality, credible answers or results or experiences, without having to navigate out of the search paradigm.

MARK MORRISSEY: To me when we talk about experiences, it’s that. It’s not just a query and results, it’s leading the user through the information that they’re looking for.

A big driver for the decision that we made in the partnership with Microsoft is to allow us to focus on that.

GREG NELSON: There are a whole lot of premium opportunities that are available to Yahoo.

We have a lot of things that are in the core API, we have a lot of things that can be put in the API.

And so Yahoo can form their strategy about what they want to do with the user experience, and we have a lot of things to do too.

The thing that’s been fun for me, and you know this by covering MSN, too, is you step into the search discussion at Microsoft at any level of the company, and you feel the level of focus and energy and forward momentum. Because when this company gets really serious about something, you really feel it. I mean, you felt it in Windows and Office and Internet Explorer. And now you feel it in search. Both the product experience like Bing but also at the platform level.

It’s fun. Like as someone that has spent 15 years now, I just had my 15th anniversary a couple weeks ago…

BOOMTOWN: What do you get?

GREG NELSON: You get a big piece of glass.



BOOMTOWN: Like a vase?

GREG NELSON: No, like a big monolith.




GREG NELSON: Come over to my office and I’ll show you.

BOOMTOWN: Okay. [Laughter.]

GREG NELSON: But, I mean, the focus that you feel there, for somebody that has worked on a part of the business that’s less strategic, has been really fun, really energizing, and just great to work on.

MARK MORRISSEY: And that’s been proven out as we’ve worked through step by step through the things that we’ve needed to do. There hasn’t been a time where they’ve said, no, we’re not going to invest to go get that stuff. There has been clear focus at every level of the organization. And again the quality of what they’ve produced so far–not that they’re done, there’s a lot of work still left to go–but the quality has been fantastic. And I have looked forward to the future stuff that we’ve started to talk about here.

BOOMTOWN: Who do you actually report to?


BOOMTOWN: Carol, directly.


We sat down when she asked me to take the job, and she decided she wanted to have direct engagement.

And then clearly because this role spans across each of the different functions, our entire search business is what we’re changing in order to facilitate that.

BOOMTOWN: So, you’re up here [in the Seattle area]. You’re up here, what, every week?

MARK MORRISSEY: I live in southern California, because I started with Panama.

BOOMTOWN: So, you come up every week?

MARK MORRISSEY: Yeah, yeah, at least once a week. And generally it’s Thursdays is when we have our joint operating team meeting.

GREG NELSON: Yeah, if you want to buy airline stocks, like Alaska (ALK) and Southwest (LUV), I mean, between our leads going down and Yahoo’s leads coming up, wow, it’s amazing.

MARK MORRISSEY: When we have a center of operation for decisions tend to be here a little bit more, but that when you get down a level and we’re into each individual team’s discussion, like the algo team, their big meetings are on Thursdays, and they switch back and forth between here and the Sunnyvale area.

GREG NELSON: A lot of what we’re working on right now is engineering migration; we try and put Mark in the rooms with engineering leaders and whatever.

BOOMTOWN: Right, okay. And then you’ll continue to do that right through the…

MARK MORRISSEY: As long as it’s needed.