Interview with Search Engineer Tim Converse

I had the pleasure of meeting Tim Converse in the rotating bed room of the Hugh Hefner suite at the Palms at YPN’s party during Las Vegas Pubcon this year. He is definitely a witty guy, but has a stern way of saying things sometimes that leaves you wondering if he was being serious or simply having fun with you. ;-)

Taking opportunities as they come, I asked Tim for an interview and he said yes. I didn’t know at the time that the interview I would end up doing would be an “exit interview” days after he announced leaving Yahoo! for a new start up he names in the interview below. He also gives us his background, his reasons for leaving Yahoo, what he thinks of the hype surrounding recent Yahoo! departures and a few tidbits of information on his new position.

Q&A with Search Engineer Tim Converse

RAE: First, for people who might not understand the term “spam czar” (ok, so maybe that’s not the official title on your business cards), can you tell us a bit about what you did for Yahoo?

TC: Heh – no, not official, and kind of a joke. Also an exaggeration … but I can’t really explain that without describing how we were organized, so I’ll leave that there.

Anyway, I was an engineering manager, and my team worked on spam and other kinds of relevance issues. All pure-algorithmic stuff and all focused on web search. The goal for web spam fighting is always: don’t let the efforts of spammers interfere with the user experience. So we worked on algos in that direction. (Yes, I’m being vague.)

Toward the end there, I started to attend more external conferences, both academic and biz-side, which is the only reason I’m known at all externally, and the only reason you’re interviewing me rather than any of the thousands of other people from Yahoo!.

Most of the engineering and management talent at big companies is completely silent to the outside world, which I think is too bad, although you’re beginning to see that fragment with the rise of blogs and the encouragement of tech evangelism. Yahoo! is unusually open about allowing that kind of thing these days, which you can see just by looking at some of Jeremy Zawodny’s blog posts. ;)

RAE: How did you end up working for Yahoo to begin with?

TC: I worked at Excite Search for a couple of years starting in 2000, mostly on the crawling team. It was an interesting experience to work for a public company (Excite@Home) that failed so completely.

If you’re ever driving in Silicon Valley on 101 near Redwood City, look for a big “Ampex” sign on the west side of the freeway. (That’s a Silicon Valley landmark, and can’t be removed, apparently, because it commemorates the company that invented the VCR.) Right behind that are three large buildings that you can still see through, because they’ve never been re-occupied since Excite@Home ceased operations in early 2002. A monument to Bubble 1.0.

Yeah, working for a public company in the middle of a death spiral is an experience that everyone should have exactly once in their life. Or maybe at most once, I’m not sure.

Anyway, while I was still working at Excite, a friend of mine from grad school realized that he had two friends who both worked at web search engines, and he thought that maybe they should meet each other. So I had lunch with his friend from Inktomi, and we had this very wary conversation where we both tried to extract information about the other company while revealing nothing ourselves. :)

Then after Excite@Home went out of business the Inktomi guy got in touch, and eventually hired me and became my boss and mentor. Yahoo! acquired Inktomi a year or so after that.

RAE: What made you decide to leave Yahoo?

TC: Mainly just that I’ve never worked for a startup-sized company, and I wanted to try it. The new company also was a nice combination of my current life (web search) and my previous life (AI grad school), with people I knew from both phases, and I think the technology is really promising. But it was a pull thing, not a push thing.

RAE: In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about the “defection” of Yahoo’s senior management. Your departure will likely fuel that fire. Care to comment?

TC: Oh geez, it’s all a bit overblown. Yahoo! is a well-managed company, and part of good management is making the company robust to particular people leaving. These things tend to go in cycles also, with periods of stability and periods of flux where a lot of people change jobs.

But look at all the very high-profile talent that Yahoo! Research in particular has hired in the last couple of years — it’s a Who’s Who of web research. I’ll reveal my biases: I think that hiring the best engineers and scientists is more important in the end than biz-side VPs coming and going, which is what most of the stories have been about. (But I’m a geek that way — I’m sure that people with business-school training see it the other way around.)

I also think that journalists move in herds, and they tend to pursue angles of reportage that are in vogue at the moment. The reorg and personnel flux seems to be the angle of choice right now about Y!; in the spring it will be something different, like new products, or monetization wins, or whatever it happens to be. Don’t believe the anti-hype.

RAE: What will you miss most about working for Yahoo?

TC: Um, lots of things. The scale of the work, the huge datasets, the massive computational power of all that gear. The opportunity to help millions of people find what they’re looking for. The people I’ve worked with, my team, my friends. The corporate culture of not being a jerk. The free espresso drinks. ;)

RAE: Who is taking over your now empty position at Yahoo? And if you refuse to “uncloak” (yep, I so stole that from you Tim) the new spam czar, care to at least leave us all with a warm, fuzzy feeling (or a cold and steely feeling, depending on which side of the fence you’re on) about his (or her) capabilities?

TC: Nope, I can’t talk about individuals unless they want to be talked about, but believe me, everything is in good hands. Really extremely competent hands. I was mostly redundant already there, toward the end (shhh, don’t tell anyone!).

Again, the work that really matters is done by all the people you never hear about or talk to, not by people like me who go to webmaster conferences.

RAE: Do you have any parting advice for those looking to optimize for Yahoo without pissing your successor off?

TC: Yes. Create original content that people love. (Sorry, you’ll probably find that unsatisfying, won’t you?)

OK, I’ll try again: in addition to the above, make sure your titles and internal link text are pertinent. Test your pages in a vanilla browser with JavaScript and images turned off, to make sure that all crawlers can see all of your content. Make sure you can get to every page by following links from the root page of your site.

It really helps engines if you provide a way to crawl your site that doesn’t depend on cookies or session IDs. In fact, this is one case where it’s OK to show the crawler something different than you show users – go ahead and strip those session IDs for the crawlers (at least if the URLs will still work without them).

Check out your site at siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com to figure out what Yahoo! has crawled (and whether they’ve crawled it successfully) and to see who is linking to you. (That last recommendation is not just because I worked at Yahoo! – at the last SES, my co-panelists from other engines pointed people to SiteExplorer too, because it’s the only search-engine tool that shows you inlinks.)

RAE: So, we all know you’re a talented guy, but no one’s perfect. What was your biggest anti-spam failure? What was you biggest anti-spam success?

TC: I have a really good example of each of these in mind, and it’s unfortunate that I am not going to tell you about them, because they’re really good examples. ;)

RAE: You’ve been to several conferences in the search engine marketing realm. What was your favorite and why? Are there any industry people you’ve met over the years (non-Yahoo) via the conferences that you’ll miss no longer seeing on a regular basis?

TC: I’ve gone to WebmasterWorld (PubCon) and Search Engine Strategies, both of which I like, although they have slightly different vibes.

As for people, I’ve enjoyed meeting and hanging out with the Google folks, though I’ll name no names. Believe it or not, the reps from different search engines actually don’t sit around glaring at each other at conferences. We all work on similar stuff, and even though we can’t really _talk_ about it, it still gives you a feeling of common ground.

On the academic side, I enjoyed working with Brian Davison (from Lehigh University) and Marc Najork (from Microsoft Research) on the AIRWEB workshop that Brian started a couple of years ago. Studying the interaction of search engines and spammers is becoming a respectable sub-discipline, partly due to Brian’s work. The academic buzzphrase for it, by the way, is “adversarial information retrieval” (and if there are any fans of the movie “Brazil” out there … no, that’s _not_ what it means. But it *is* information retrieval, not information dispersal. :) )

Another person I got to meet, if only briefly, is Gord Hotchkiss from Enquiro. I’m a fan of his eye-tracking studies – everyone who is interested in search usability ought to buy a copy of his latest one. ;)

RAE: Can you tell us a bit about your new company? The name would be nice for a start…

TC: Sure – I’m going to Powerset, which is also in the web search space. The focus is on applying natural-language understanding technology to web search. They’re still pretty stealthy, so I’ll stop there.

RAE: What will you be doing there and what are you most looking forward to as far as challenges in your new position?

TC: It will be very different I’m sure – I won’t be managing, at least at first, so I’ll probably just be desperately trying to remember how to do hands-on work and prove that I still can. :)

RAE: What did you see in this company that made you decide you simply had to be a part of it?

TC: A really, really nice demo. ;)

RAE: If the planets align in a “best case” fashion, where do you see yourself in five years?

TC: Working at the best search engine on the planet (Yahoo! Search) three years after it merges with Powerset, and two years after it becomes the dominant search engine on the planet in terms of market share, and 13 years before it becomes the official search engine of the lunar colony in 2024. (There’s no spam on the moon right now, and we want to keep it that way.)

RAE: Rumor has it that a young Tim Converse used to hustle pool in Chicago bars. Care to leave us with an interesting story?

TC: Where _do_ you get your information, Rae? That’s ridiculous. I’m sorry… we’re going to have to stop this interview right now. ;)

LOL, I can assure you my information is accurate guys. ;-) But, I really appreciate Tim’s candor and I know that he’s well respected by many members of the search engine marketing community and that many people will continue to follow him in his new career via the press and his blog. I wish him the best of luck in his new venture.

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

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