First published December 21, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Last spring, I attended the Pubcon conference in Boston put on by Webmaster World. During one of the breaks between the sessions, I was tucked away in an empty room trying to keep up with the inevitable flood of e-mails.
Well, truth be told, the room wasn’t quite empty. There was another person, also hunched over a laptop, working at the table next to me. We were both pretty absorbed and quiet. It was one of those situations where you’re wondering whether it’s better to not introduce yourself and run the risk of looking like you’re ignoring the person, or break the silence and acknowledge the other person by way of a quick nod and hi. I eventually opted for the later, and I’m glad I did. This was the way I met Yahoo’s Tim Converse.
Tim posted on his blog earlier this week that he’s moving on from Yahoo. Knowing Tim, albeit not that well, I sat and thought about this for awhile. It brought up a number of interesting questions about our industry. I thought them worthy of comment.
Don’t Judge a Book…
Tim is a pretty quiet guy. In fact, many readers of this column probably don’t know who Tim is. He’s the head of Yahoo’s anti-spam patrol, so he’s a bit like the Matt Cutts of Yahoo. But not quite. While Tim came to Yahoo through the acquisition of Inktomi way back in 2003, he has generally let the spotlight shine on his counterpart at Yahoo, the more vocal Tim Mayer. In an industry notorious for flocking the algorithmic cops at the major engines (see my first encounter with Mr. Cutts) Tim Converse can walk through most shows unscathed and unrecognized. In fact, it’s only very recently that I’ve seen Tim participate on a panel at a show, at this fall’s Pubcon in Vegas. Tim is not as comfortable in the public eye as his counterparts; he doesn’t have the same practiced ease of the other Tim or the open charm of Matt, but it becomes quickly apparent that his brain is packed with algorithmic gold. This guy knows his stuff. And if you’ve ever had the chance to chat with Tim or read his blog, you’ll find a razor-sharp wit and some pretty deep thinking lies below that deceptively calm exterior.
The post went live on Tim’s blog on Monday. The well-wishers that commented made it clear that while many may not know Tim, those that do have a great deal of respect for him. Posters included Cutts and Danny Sullivan. While Tim’s announcement didn’t elicit the same type of response that Sullivan did when he dropped his bombshell that he was moving on from the Search Engine Strategies franchise (imagine what would happen if Cutts posted that he was leaving Google), one can’t help but wonder what the impact on an already battle-sore Yahoo might be. Certainly no one is irreplaceable, but Tim was a definite asset in the relevancy war staged by the big three. He’s looking forward to seeing the showdown continue, albeit from a distance: “Who is going to have the highest-quality general web search a year from now? I think it’s still going to be a brutal battle between the current top three (including MSN), and the winner will be whoever can innovate and execute the fastest. I’m sorry I’m going to watch that particular game from the sidelines, because it’s definitely not even halftime yet.”
My other thought that came from Tim’s departure is more a precursor to what will inevitably happen at all the major engines. The people who serve on the algorithmic side of the engines, like Tim, are privy to an extraordinary amount of proprietary information. Now with the introduction of quality scoring on the sponsored side, the same is true for these teams as well. At some point, all that knowledge is apt to walk out the front door and never return. I’m sure Yahoo’s corporate legal department has a sheath of nondisclosure and noncompete agreements, but those have always been relatively hard to enforce when put to the test.
This concern over trade secrets is certainly not unique to search, but with the importance of search for millions of marketers, it does put a universally recognized premium on the value of that knowledge. It’s inevitable that others from all the three engines will follow Tim’s lead and move along. When they do, they will suddenly find themselves hot properties–even if they tend to be quiet guys, a little on the shy side.