Angus Norton Interviewed by Eric Enge | Perficient Digital

Angus Norton Interviewed by Eric Enge

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Angus Norton

Angus Norton is the Senior Director, Live Search, at Microsoft Corporation. Angus previously has had several other roles at Microsoft, including Senior Director, Developer Platform Evangelism, Director, Windows Mobile, and Group Product Manager, Enterprise Servers & Tools.

Angus was one of the few that have won the Microsoft Circle of Excellence award. This is an award that presented annually by CEO Steve Ballmer to a select group of employees around the globe who have delivered above & beyond results for their business, and whose performance dramatically impacted the company and those with whom they work.

Angus has also been a winner of the Microsoft Marketing Excellence Award. This award is only awarded to 5 individuals across the global business every year. Angus won the award for his contributions and business plans that helped to shape Microsoft’s efforts to become a world-class Enterprise Server & Tools brand. This award specifically focused on his leadership of the team that built Microsoft’s SQL Server business, which ultimately took their product to the number one position in the market.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Let’s talk a little about some of the general aspects of how Microsoft is focusing on search.

Angus Norton: When you look at the search engine landscape and you think about how search engines have evolved since the days of AltaVista, there has been only one fundamental shift in the value proposition for customers and their experiences in the last ten years. There has really just been one monumental shift, and that was Google.

They raised the bar on quality and relevance, but at the same time they also figured out a way to build a healthy ecosystem around it. There really hasn’t been a lot of innovation in terms of the search experience that customers go through as they interact with the search engine. It’s kind of interesting when you think about it that way.

We are not only focused on improving the relevance of our product and the results we give, but we also have thought very deeply around this. If you had a blank sheet of paper and you are able to change the way in which the search engine works and really deliver more of an information tool like approach, what would you do? I think we are pretty uniquely positioned to be able to impact this notion of the search engine being more of an information tool.

We are actually changing that experience to see if we can drive some new change around how users work. We are really focusing in on that commercial search task to see how we can come up with a business model that delivers value to the consumer beyond purely search results, for example, such as with our cash back initiative. We are also looking to simplify key tasks within commercial search, whether the user is looking for a review, or digital camera, or travel, or whatever that.

You’ve seen our user experience side, we think we have got a great product and we think we are leading in the image search arena in particular. We’ve got an endless scrolling page, and the video search is another area where we have gotten innovative. We also think that our local search and our virtual look experiences are some of the leading experiences out there. You are going to see more innovation from us around shopping and commercial searches specifically.

Eric Enge: The other thing that I have seen in the past is that you have done a lot in terms of specific experiences in places like healthcare and mobile.

Angus Norton: In terms of search, we have to ask ourselves how we can ensure we are providing a great search experience across multiple platforms and products within that. Mobile, Firefox, Windows and IE are efficiently providing a great search experience, and mobile devices, particularly outside of the US, are a very important part of that discussion. We have our mobile clients for Windows Mobile and we have a mobile search client for Blackberry Win devices. And we also have a mobile search portal as well. This is an area where we continue to invest.

Eric Enge: Now, you also did a press release recently about how the cashback is cashing in. There was some interesting metrics in that post. For example, how it was helping merchants with their results. Can you expand on that a little?

Angus Norton: We have definitely seen significant momentum around cash-back. We launched this back in May of 2008, and since then we’ve seen over 4 million unique users visiting that Live Search cashback page every month, which has generated about 68,000,000 commercial queries.

The actual number of products that we are offering has increased by 30%, up to over 13,000,000 products. The advertisers that are advertising on cashback are also very positive along these dimensions. eBay has reported 50% improvements in the ROIs as a result of cash-back. On top of that, the merchants that we’ve added are now 20 of the top 50 online retailers in the US using cashback. Some of those advertisers have seen their ROI go up by 50%, which means they are spending more money and advertising more on cashback than they were before.

We also did a study with comScore where they found that 13% of commercial searches in the last year have been through our cash-back product.

Our overall market share in search is at 8.2%, so cashback is having a real impact. We are seeing it because we know that advertisers are moving money away from other search engines to cashback with these results as well.

Eric Enge: One of the things that you announced at PubCon was Silk Road. Can you talk about what that is?

Angus Norton: So, we announced what I like to think of as a significant expansion around our Live Search APIs. Essentially, it is a set of APIs that enables publishers and web developers to monetize their traffic research and provide their users with a customized search experience. We offer highly flexible data formats so that users, developers, or publishers can build their own search experience.

You might be curious as to why we named it Silk Road. If you know history you’ll know that the original Silk Road offered opportunities for culture and technology exchange across the old Asia to European trade routes. We have a very similar thing here, an ecosystem between publishers and developers. It is a set of data formats and it’s very open. It supports all the major data types, including JSON, XML, and things like that.

A site owner can use a toolkit so that more relevant results go to the publisher’s site. We then use it as a search query on their site for images or video, and they can also syndicate our API for image and video searches as their own web result. We’ve made it very flexible so there is no daily limit on queries for the custom-built systems on their site. We also don’t require them to do ads.

They can just use the API anywhere they want. So just think about the difference between what you’ve seen in the past and this. In the past, you could build a custom search engine and build up search experiences into your site. This is fine, but Yahoo and Google can do that as well. The difference for us is that we have boarder format support and we don’t require ads.

The last piece to this is if you are building a Windows application. We are making it much easier for the developer that’s writing an application in visual studio, visual basic or C++, C# to take our live search APIs and build search experiences within their Windows and web applications.

There is also our webmaster tools, and we are integrating the Webmaster Portal and the Silk Road APIs into one suite.

Eric Enge: Right. So, one of the big things that you mentioned was that there is not a limit on the number of queries, and no requirement to show ads. That certainly provides a lot of flexibility. What are the branding requirements associated with it?

Angus Norton: There are actually no specific brand requirements at all, but there are some quality bars that we strictly focus on to go through when they apply the Silk Road beta. There is an application they need to fill out at theLive Search Developer Center. Currently, our search results do not come with any requirement to say that it is powered by Live Search.

Eric Enge: If a publisher gets his data feed as an XML feed, can he then turn around and decide that he doesn’t like a site and he’s going to take it out?

Angus Norton: Yes, publishers can do custom ranking. Essentially it exposes searchers to content that may be of interest to them, and then customers can impact the ranking the images and the content that they want to expose. We have tried to make it as easy as possible to do that.

Eric Enge: To think about it in broader terms, a publisher or a web developer can look at it as a data source, and then they can do what they want with it, like with any other data source.

Angus Norton: Yes, exactly. You may remember the thing that we did at Pubcon when we had a mountain bike site, and we were able to tailor that site within the category of mountain bikes because the formats are very open.

Eric Enge: Entering a search query is a very basic way to guide what data you pull from the API, but you want to restrict the scope of where search queries are allowed to pull data from, correct?

Angus Norton: That’s right.

Eric Enge: So, if you are on your mountain biking site, you want to make sure that you are not getting motorbiking data, assuming that’s not what you want to have in your version of the search engine.

Angus Norton: Yes. The relevance of the results will be driven by our core Live Search algorithm. We are doing great work on algorithm improvement, that will translate to improvement on those folks that are using the Silk Road APIs. But, it will go both ways obviously. There is a group adoption of the Silk Road APIs that will definitely help it there. The formats of their own search engine are important, which is why we see the partnership with the community, developers, and publishers.

The other area that I haven’t talked too much about is that a lot of owners will tell us that whenever there is a DNS error, they lose their traffic. To help with that we have creates a DNS error toolkit. What this does is deliver relevant search results on the publisher’s site instead of traditional error pages that often result in a customer abandoning the site.

We found that was experiencing a huge amount of drop off with customers who have entered the wrong URL in the address box. They might put in as opposed to, and we might lose that traffic. So we deployed this toolkit that helps you detect more and more errors and point them in the right direction.

We deployed this at, and they have experienced a 40% increase in the rate of people getting into compared to the previous error page they had. This essentially allows you to build your own custom error page so that you can retain the traffic.

Eric Enge: What are some of the sample applications you have? With this API I can envision that you can go beyond a simple search tool. If you have the ability to pull search data and manipulate it if you see fit, it would seem to me that there might be the possibility of building some higher level tools.

For example, You may have a publisher that has many other data sources, and maybe there is some way to cross reference these things and do some interesting dynamic stuff.

Angus Norton: I can give you an example of what you are saying. Say we have an application that’s built in IE and it has an expense reporting tool. When I get back from Vegas and I’m doing my expenses to submit to my boss. I would enter in the name of the hotel, how much I spent with them, and the address of the hotel, if I know it. If I don’t, I will normally have to open up another session, do a search on the hotel and then I’ll copy and paste the hotel’s address and details into my expense report.

With Silk Road, I don’t need to do that. I can just right-click on the hotel’s name, and then select Live Search for the address. Then, I can just insert the address into my expense report.

Another example would be a small Microsoft product we have called Office. Why is it that when I am in Office and I am writing a word document, I can’t just right click on that word, and then click on search the web and bring in content from Wikipedia or wherever? Those are examples of firing up queries within an application without having to go out of that application to do the search.

Eric Enge: We can go beyond just having a custom search engine on your site.

Angus Norton: That’s exactly right. At Microsoft, we have sort of a pedigree around platform developers in particular. We want to support the application ecosystem, not just the web ecosystem. Search is a service just like any other on the web.

So, that’s definitely where we’ve gone here, and we think that we are pretty uniquely positioned to do that. We also have web development tools, Expression and Silverlight Visual Studio. We have a great search engine, and we have those assets that we can bring here as well. So, you are going to see more integration of other Microsoft products around our search APIs. You will see more of a search experience within other products that come out of the arrangement, whether it’s IE, or Office, or Visual Studio Developers.

Eric Enge: Do you envision also being actively involved in integration with third-party applications?

Angus Norton: Yes. We would definitely like to see ISVs signing up for these APIs. There is an age-old question that asks whether or not search is a platform or an application. I believe that for a consumer, search is an application, but for a producer, it’s a service. But, more broadly, search is a platform, and it’s one of those services that is part of our Live platform. The stuff we’ve talked about around Azure and Live and search is one of those platform components, and Silk Road will help us deliver that.

At the Product Developer’s Conference (PDC) we announced the new Azure platform. This is a set of services from identity management, to storage, to instant messaging, to email and to business applications. And generally, when you think about it, a lot of the service is needed to deliver an application to a customer, and a lot of that can be done today in the cloud. We are seeing more and more of that happen. There are certain things that need to happen on the client, and there are certain things that need to happen in the cloud.

We don’t think everything can happen in the cloud, and so the goal is essentially a platform to enable developers to build applications and deliver the core set of features to the clients directly. But then, there is a set of other services we manage to deliver by Microsoft through this cloud search.

At the end of the day, we have a great search engine. But what we have that the others don’t is a very broad platform story across web development, web design and the infrastructure to host that on Windows server and to deliver it with Silverlight Visual Studio. Search is one of those services like instant messaging or Hotmail in that it delivers that broader approach. Google had Gmail, and they had Gtalk, but they don’t have the footprint we have to be able to deliver a broader experience.

You could argue that instant messenger is the most used social networking tool on the planet today. I mean, more people are using it every day. That was really one of the first social networking tools on the planet. Hotmail is the number one free email client out there now. We want to make search an integrated part of all those experiences.

Eric Enge: I am sure there are a lot of different and interesting ways to integrate it in. What can publishers do to monetize these applications as they build them? What options do they have?

Angus Norton: We have a self serve online publisher tool that will enable publishers to earn revenue from their websites that they build using Silk Road, using our Microsoft ad platform. The other thing is that successful publishers need to be open and flexible, and they need to have unlimited knowledge on how they can serve their users. They want to engage old users and attract new users, and they want to do right from their core experience.

They don’t want their site to be taken over by Microsoft, right? They want to continue that core experience they’ve built, and they want search to be part of it. So, we are enabling them to retain their own look and feel their sites and build a great experience for their customers, but not have to have their site taken over by Google branding, or Yahoo branding, or Microsoft branding. It just enhances what they are already doing.

We know the publishers want to retain users and attract new users. They want to have them engaged on their site and they don’t want to lose them. The openness of the platform helps them build an experience that doesn’t detract from their own brand. And for the first time we are able to say, you don’t have to use our ads, but you can if you want to.

Eric Enge: You have also focused on a bunch of vertical areas. We talked about some of them briefly- image, video, local, shopping, commercial healthcare, etc. A second area is that you’ve completely opened up the search experience to people to put things more or less anywhere they want in applications. One thing we haven’t actually talked much about yet is the distribution deals that you’ve done recently with Sun and HP. You can think of this strategy as pushing search into everything and everywhere.

Angus Norton: Yes. Sun and HP both told us that when they advertised with Live they seemed to get stronger engagement but fewer eyeballs, so they didn’t get the volume they need or want.

The problem is that they are not delivering enough users and they are not falling to them. Acquiring traffic and users takes investment and distribution. Then, hopefully, once the customer uses the product, we have a product in front of them that is good enough for them to consider as a second choice or maybe even as a primary search engine. But, we can’t rely purely on the product to do that.

If you look at where Google has spent money over the last ten years, a huge percentage of their investment outside of R & D has been in distribution. They have done a lot of distribution deals, and so we recognized that in order to acquire new traffic, we need to invest in that. So, computer companies are one area we were investing in. We have a global relationship with Sun today, and we have a North American distribution partnership starting with HP in January.

We think that means that our toolbar will be standard on all of those PCs, and IE with Live Search as a default will also be standard. And secondly, ISVs tend to have a broader footprint. There are obviously more downloads of an ISV application than there are on a PC shipment. A classic example of this is the Google toolbar. The Sun partnership is a huge distribution opportunity as well, so we’ll be right along about toolbar with every Java Runtime Environment (JRE) that gets downloaded. That will deliver new volume for advertisers, and hopefully, get our toolbar in front of end users.

As we are doing a good job with the product, hopefully, they will consider us. We humbly ask that they consider us and use us more. We are just the small guy, we are #3 so we are doing as many things as we can to be scrappy and innovative to drive visibility for our product.

Eric Enge: I am having a little trouble imaging Microsoft as a small guy, but that’s because I was involved in the very early stages of the PC industry.

Angus Norton: I have been at Microsoft for 14 years. It’s funny that I have been involved in a lot of these businesses, and we were a small guy in most of the ones I have been involved in. I worked on the server for thirteen years with our SQL server and Windows server. Different battles for the company, but I can remember ten years or eleven years ago folks would tell me, there is no way that you can get a foothold in the database business. They said that Microsoft would never be enterprise-ready and that we don’t have a database that would scale.

Now the SQL business is a multibillion-dollar business, and we are #1 in that market. So, people always don’t really think about Office in Windows, but there are actually a lot of other businesses that we have built where we have been the underdog. And, we are the underdog at search, no doubt about it.

Eric Enge: Yeah. Well, it’s good that you recognized it and you are acting on that basis, so it gives you the best chance of success ultimately.

Do you have anything else that you can say about the future of where this is going, like other technologies you think that you’ve acquired or have in hand that you think are going to be interesting when you are fully deployed?

Angus Norton: All I can tell you that we are going to continue driving the distribution and awareness of our search product like the toolbar and the core search experience. You won’t see the results from those investments right away. Some of them haven’t even started yet, like HP, which is starting next month. In core search, we think we have made a lot of advancements in simplifying key tasks simply around instant answers, reviews, and shopping.

We think that we are leading in image search and video search, and you will continue to see us invest in those areas. And, from an engineering perspective, we are going to continue to try and attract the best and brightest people to help us build the next experience around the product.

We do think that there are a huge number of opportunities for innovation around the cross-search experience. There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in the last ten years other than Google changing the way the game was played. We think that this industry is still very, very young, and very, very new and there are opportunities to make that experience even better. We are going to continue to invest in the long-term. So, our strategy is unchanged, and it’s going to be more of the same.

Eric Enge: What about technologies like Powerset? Are these the kinds of things that we can expect to see more of in the future?

Angus Norton: You are going to see pieces of technology from Powerset and Farecast, which is our travel acquisition, creeping into the core search experience. So, if you haven’t played around with our Farecast travel results, I encourage you to take a look at them. Put in a query like a flight from Seattle to New York, and you’ll see Farecast stuff popping up. And then, the Powerset work, you are going to see more and more of that in the next version of the product.

Eric Enge: Thanks Angus!

Angus Norton: Thank you Eric!

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