Kara Swisher

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Digital's Deadliest Catch, Part One: The MicroHoo Search Integration Team's Nelson and Morrissey Speak!

After months of trying, BoomTown was finally granted an audience with the two key execs who are now responsible for one of the diciest digital jobs going right now: Microsoft’s Greg Nelson and Yahoo’s Mark Morrissey.

The pair’s two-year task is to coordinate the massive search and online advertising partnership the companies struck last year, a job that is perhaps one of the more complex and critical to their businesses going forward.

The deal was finally approved by government regulators in February, and that started the clock for Nelson and Morrissey to get it cooking with gas.

Although it is not as if either Microsoft (MSFT) or Yahoo (YHOO) had a choice but to join together in order to make a dent in the dominant market position of Google (GOOG) in search, the companies are hoping their combined share of close to 30 percent will make a difference to both advertisers and consumers.

The integration will be ongoing, with hopes that the U.S. market will see a unified backend for search technology by the end of the year. Paid search will follow, as will the rest of the global markets.

As part of the shift, some staff from the Yahoo search technology group have either left, been laid off or have been moving over to Microsoft in the transition.

That has meant a Silicon Valley-to-Seattle area back and forth commute for Nelson and Morrissey, both longtime employees who have worked on a variety of other jobs at both companies, including heading MSN and major advertising platform initiatives, respectively.

But this effort is bigger than any of that, since it essentially is the search equivalent of herding cats–by creating a seamless search and online advertising product that works quickly and well across two major Web properties.

Thus, here is the first of two parts of an edited transcript of much of my hour-long interview with both, in which we talked about a range of issues from operations to culture to codependency.

Part Two of of the interview is posted here.

GREG NELSON: So, you want to hear how I got into this thing?

BOOMTOWN: Yeah…explain it to me.

GREG NELSON: So, you know me from the MSN days. And [Microsoft search head Qi Lu] said, “I like what you’re doing with your team, but I have this assignment. And I said, “Qi, I really respect what you’re trying to do. I don’t know if I’m the right guy for you, but go ahead and talk to everybody you want to talk to. And if you come back and ask me to do it, I’ll say yes.”

So, he went out and interviewed a bunch of people and then came back and said, I want you to do it. That was hard, because I loved my MSN team, and I loved what I was doing. But, you know, when Qi asks, you say yes.

BOOMTOWN: Had you been doing any search business?

GREG NELSON: Well, only through the MSN lens. I was a publisher in a way, because I had the responsibility to drive search volume through MSN as a publisher. So, I would work with our editorial staff in all these different markets to think about search experiences in the context of a portal or a media property, and how you turn search into content or how you drive premium content experiences that add value to search, whatever it might be.

So, I thought about it only from that point of view. The algorithmic part of search, like the way that you generate relevance in search, the way that you attach it to advertising in search, that’s sort of my…that’s what I get to learn out of this job, which is great.

MARK MORRISSEY: When he started, both of our executives got our top level teams together. We wanted to be really on the ground running by the time they got regulatory approval.

GREG NELSON: Just to give you a sense of what I walked into, there were hundreds…I don’t remember exactly how many, probably 200 people that had expressed interest in working on that Yahoo partnership by the time that I was asked to take it on. And they were people from all different parts of the company and division; not necessarily all at senior levels, but people that had said, “Wow, I think that’s really interesting, I’d like to come work on it.”

So, I went through a review of all those resumes and all that talent, and then also did additional sort of looking around and picking people one at a time to build what we thought we would be a great team.

BOOMTOWN: And how many people are working on it from Microsoft?

GREG NELSON: All up?

BOOMTOWN: Yes.

GREG NELSON: Thousands.

BOOMTOWN: No, of course, but…

GREG NELSON: Yeah, I mean, there’s about 25 on my team, 25, 30, something like that.

MARK MORRISSEY: But even after you got your team together, one of the things that we’ve continued to do is find some key talent at Yahoo that has moved over to also be part of the Microsoft team.

GREG NELSON: That’s been really key.

MARK MORRISSEY: Yeah. So, we want people that really understand the search business and have extensive experience at Yahoo and can really help bridge not only the cultural differences, but the technical differences and the way we’ve approached the market.

BOOMTOWN: You’ve done a lot of these.

MARK MORRISSEY: So, yeah, about five years ago, they brought me into the product portion of Panama….And then that’s probably the closest comparable effort in the industry, because we did have to move our 400,000, plus or minus, global advertisers over from the platform over to Panama.

When [Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz] came on board, she asked me to be part of a small team that worked directly with Microsoft from the very beginning to figure out what the right thing was for us to do at the company, and obviously then to do…figure out what the right aligned incentives and the right structure would be for a long term, 10-year, global agreement between the two companies.

So, I did that, and that was a big portion of my responsibility last year. And then similar to Greg, as soon as it became clear that we were going to get an agreement signed sort of in the October timeframe, maybe a little bit sooner than that, Carol sat me down. I had another position in the company, and she said, it’s the right thing for you to do, and she asked me to do it.

So, she asked me to take on this role, and I just have had a long term affinity for search and search advertising. I wanted to make sure with all the work that we did on Panama and all the investments we made in search that we really ended up with the right future. Search is critical to Yahoo’s future, and yet we’ve got to make sure that we do this transition in a way that really puts us forward of all of our different customers.

BOOMTOWN: When you say Yahoo’s future, how do you look at it in search?

MARK MORRISSEY: It’s a critical part of our business today, and a critical part of our consumer experience, and it always will be. What the market deserves is it really needs a true alternative to Google. And the best way for us to achieve that is to acknowledge things that we do well, and the things that Microsoft does well, and to leverage those things together, as opposed to us trying to do everything ourselves, particularly in the areas that we’re maybe not so good at.

So, between Microsoft’s experience and focus on delivering great global platforms with true scale, Yahoo’s strength in terms of working with advertisers and understanding of the market, I really believe that in the mechanics we set up from the very beginning of this that by leveraging both of our strengths, that we can really deliver a true competitor to Google.

Not only does our scale combine to really give them much better liquidity that is huge, right, getting up close to 30 percent in the U.S., big, but then the focus that we have really helps out.

[We're not going to be in] the search platform business, the crawling, the ranking and the indexing of the Web. There is a lot of search-related technology that we’re still going to do, because we believe that the search experience…where the market needs to go for search, it’s still a relatively young market, at least from my perspective. But the search experience really needs to evolve significantly.

So, rather than us with less resources than what Google or Microsoft have had in the past trying to do all the back-end platforms and do search experience, now we’re going to take our best talent and focus on search experience and the overall consumer experience.

And then some of our talent is moving over to Microsoft. There’s about 400 people in the products organization between the search technology and paid search that are moving between Yahoo and Microsoft.

BOOMTOWN: And how successful have you been recruiting those [to Microsoft]?

GREG NELSON: Oh, really. Yeah, very successful.

BOOMTOWN: And they’re staying down there [in Silicon Valley]?

GREG NELSON: Yeah, most of them are in India. Some of them are in Silicon Valley, and other places. We’ve had a super-high acceptance rate.

So, we’ve made that quite a big priority, including a lot of executive visits, and a lot of kind of, “Hey, welcome to Microsoft, we’re excited to have you.”

BOOMTOWN: So, then you brought up over about 400, is that right?

GREG NELSON: They come in waves actually, because Mark had talked about Panama, if you want, but they still have to continue to run Panama over a period of time, across all these different markets.

So, as they are closing down Panama in various places, then we’re bringing waves of employees over and training them on adCenter.

MARK MORRISSEY: And that was one of the things that really started to demonstrate and build a lot of confidence in the execution portion of the partnership. There’s two very competing objectives: Get the employees over as fast as you possibly can, because getting that talent into Microsoft not only puts more key talent on developing the things that we need to have done for the future of the platform, but also helps in just the transition itself.

And yet we don’t want to move the talent so quickly that we’re not able to continue to the platform all the way through.

So, we went through a very rigorous…I think it took about five or six weeks with the senior leadership at Microsoft on what employees can go in what locations with what skill sets to allow us to balance between the two, and I thought it went fantastic.

Employees are engaged; the Microsoft team did an excellent job of helping to explain their level of investment and give those employees…because employees, they want to beat Google, and knowing that they have a future at a company that is going to invest significantly to make that happen was a big deal.

BOOMTOWN: And, Greg, when you’re saying, when they move over, there’s not a flipped switch, I understand that, but what’s the time line at this point?

GREG NELSON: I think we’ve brought over 100 or so.

MARK MORRISSEY: A big chunk went last week.

BOOMTOWN: When does it switch over?

MARK MORRISSEY: Beginning of next year.

BOOMTOWN: The U.S. moves first and then…

GREG NELSON: Yeah. Well, U.S. and Canada, North America.

BOOMTOWN: Right, and then? Then the rest of the world?

GREG NELSON: You can kind of do it by size of market. So, Europe next.

MARK MORRISSEY: Basically, there’s 59 total countries and the objective is to get all countries done by Q2 of 2012, the first few markets being U.S. and Canada.

GREG NELSON: It’s 24 months after commencement, which is February 18th.

BOOMTOWN: Right, but it begins next January, correct?

MARK MORRISSEY: The principle is to transition with quality. That’s the overriding factor. And that’s based on the consumer experience and the yield and performance of advertisers and publishers in our owned-and-operated properties, right, because the intent here is make sure that, as we make the transition to going forward, we want the business results to get nothing but better and better.

We set a goal for both of our teams, if we can possibly move U.S. and Canada over before the holiday season, with quality, this year–this year, we want to do so.

BOOMTOWN: Quality, what does that mean?

MARK MORRISSEY: The first one is the experience. For consumers we want to deliver the same quality experience–basically the look and feel before and after the transition.

And the results will get nothing but more and more relevant over time. But the overall experience, the speed, the performance need to be as good or better going forward. For advertisers, there are capabilities that they’ve really enjoyed in Panama that are not in adCenter today. We’re not promising them one-for-one capabilities, but there are investments that we’re making together with Microsoft to bring adCenter up for advertisers and publishers.

In terms of the first one is experience–experience for consumers, advertisers, publishers, and we want the capabilities to be what they expect or better.

Then secondly, it’s around the business metrics….We want to make sure that again for not every single advertiser, not every single publisher, but if you look at in aggregate the groups of major marketplaces, we want the overall performance and business metrics, particularly going into the holiday season, it needs to be as good or better going forward.

So, quality is about the experience itself, measured probably in terms of capabilities, and then there’s the business metrics, and we need to make sure that their yield is as good.

GREG NELSON: And there’s great alignment on that. It’s a 10-year partnership at minimum, hopefully longer, and you want to get off on the right foot with everybody: Consumers, advertisers, publishers. You want them to feel like this is a strong launch, it’s a credible alternative, and we’re in.

So, we’re not going to rush it. If the companies don’t feel ready, like we can really achieve that, then, of course, we’re better to wait.

BOOMTOWN: Well, there is some pressure.

GREG NELSON: The time line that we started to communicate to–publicly, specifically–our advertisers and publishers, is our goal is to have, you know, as pretty confident, algo transition, U.S. and Canada, will happen this year.

We want the paid transition to happen this year, if we can do so with quality, before the holiday season. We’ve got to protect the holiday season at all costs here. And then the next big part of the goal is we have to have it all done by Q2 of 2012.

So, right now we’re finalizing with each of our markets what that sequence will be in terms of the countries, starting in the first quarter of next year, and then we just roll all the way through to that last year.

BOOMTOWN: And how have the cultural changes [been managed]?

GREG NELSON: It’s interesting, because, of course, walking into this I had sort of a point of view and some apprehension, like “Wow, is this going to be really hard.”

It’s been far easier than I had expected, and I think part of that is just that Mark and I get along very well. We’re both kind of pragmatic and it takes a lot to kind of get us ruffled. So, I think we have similar styles. And the people that we’ve hired, we’ve really focused on finding people that are resilient and emotionally mature, and it will sort of steer something of this complexity over a long period of time.

So, I think you often read about, oh, Microsoft has this one culture, Yahoo has another. In practice, at least between these teams, I haven’t found that to be true.

MARK MORRISSEY: Well, right, and the interests here and the incentives that sort of reinforce those interests are very aligned. The way that the partnership was put together, we all have this one big goal, and we’ve hired people that are just really strongly committed to getting that done, and you have support from both companies at the CEO level down. It’s the top priority for both companies. It’s been far easier than I thought.

BOOMTOWN: But in terms of disgruntlement at Yahoo over not being in search technology anymore, how did you cope with that?

MARK MORRISSEY: So, first, we are in search, we’re always going to be in search. There’s an element of that particular part of the search technology that we’re not going to be in. Yeah, there were some disgruntled employees, there always will be when you make a hard decision.

But, in general, employees have responded very well, and the level of commitment that we’ve seen from the Yahoo end, work that we have to do, because this is an extraordinarily complex transition process where we have to connect our front-end to Microsoft’s back-end, and it’s got to work at tremendous scale.

I don’t know if you had a chance to see my presentation from investor day, but one of the things that I showed was some of the screenshots of what we already have in test. February wasn’t that long ago. To have gotten regulatory approval for us, to get through the mountain of requirements and use cases that we had to figure out, to have gotten the API, agreement on the APIs, and to get the coding behind those APIs and get into test by June is phenomenal.

It’s really just a long way of saying that doesn’t happen unless the Yahoos that are working on this are incredibly committed to the future of where Yahoo is going, and the future of working together with Microsoft to achieve this objective.

So, while there will always be disgruntled employees, if you look at the larger population, I mean, we have people that are not just working, they’re working unbelievably hard to make this happen.

BOOMTOWN: Now, the search experience teams are competitive teams.

MARK MORRISSEY: Some are competitive and there are some places that we’re working together. It’s a mix of both.

BOOMTOWN: Such as? Bing has been very impressive in terms of their innovation.

MARK MORRISSEY: Absolutely.

GREG NELSON: Right, and then there’s a separate conversation which is longer term, and, you know, it’s the sort of thing that would feel great to work on if we could do it right now, but right now we’re sort of just trying to ship.

But, both companies have unique assets that we’d love to put into the search alliance, and we want to drive that conversation. And right now we just want to make sure that we get Yahoo to parity of their existing experience, and then we also want to have that conversation about how do we build strength.

MARK MORRISSEY: Another way of looking at it is this is the first agreement in the industry where we have full parity in the platform.

So, as Microsoft invests in innovation around the experience, that’s going to require changes in the platform. As Yahoo invests in things that we want to do in the search experience, that will require changes in the platform. So, we’re always going to meet in the middle at the platform anyway.

Now, that’s not to say that every single thing that we decide to do around entertainment will be the same things that Microsoft decides to do. Some of the things we want to innovate independently, because we’ll discover more things and really move the ball forward. But we already have established a very strong working relationship around how we make those platform decisions, because there are things that Yahoo does today that are quite different than the way Microsoft does them today.

In order for us to get to that comparable experience, this could have been a fight to the death, right? Why would we want to do that in the Microsoft platform? And they’d say, well, “No, we don’t want to do it.”

What we did–and again I think it speaks to the maturity of both of our teams–is we just worked through use cases. Well, what are consumers really trying to do here, how has Microsoft been approaching solving that problem, how is Yahoo doing that. I thought we worked not just agreeable solutions, but ones that moved the ball forward for both of us.

But I’m anxious to get into those future conversations much more. But right now we’ve got to ship.

GREG NELSON: That’s the next chapter. The chapter right now is everybody’s head is down trying to just land Yahoo properly on the platform, and with the great equivalent searching experience.

BOOMTOWN: And when you have complaints? [Microsoft is the] vendor essentially and [Yahoo] the customer.

MARK MORRISSEY: The structure of the agreement, we really worked hard. This goes way back to the very first discussions that we had. We wanted to have aligned incentives where we set up this codependence that kept us really working well together through each of our respective roles. So, by and large, the issues or concerns, why isn’t this working, why don’t I have this capability, you know, it’s Google does it this way…we are going to be a major voice of the customer to the Microsoft teams.

In the structure of the agreement we have both this operational rigor of how do we bring those things in, how do we make marketplace decisions, which are really important. They have the technology, we have the customer-facing piece–and then how do we make road map decisions.

So, throughout transition I have approval authority in Microsoft’s platform road maps, and then going forward then we have a way of we keep providing that type of input.

It’s not a typical vendor-customer complaint process, it’s much more of a partnership, but we each have respective roles where one of us is more the vendor and one of us is more the customer.

So, for the platform they’re more the vendor, we’re more the customer. For sales we’re the vendor, they’re the customer.

And that keeps us again this kind of healthy codependence. And again to leverage–that aligns with each of our strengths.

BOOMTOWN: Is there such a thing as a healthy codependence?

GREG NELSON: Just watch.


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