Love to the Innovators, Part 1: InfoSeek, Bill Gross and Yahoo!

This is the first in a series of posts where I want to make a record of the consumer Internet innovators, so we don’t loose track. They deserve credit for their contribution, as well as our love and admiration, particularly because, if I’m seeing it correctly, I don’t think many of them made much money on their innovations or were recognized much. In fact, I’m thinking there maybe a somewhat negative correlation to being an innovator vs. making money and/or getting the credit. We’ll go through it, see if I’m right, and I expect people to correct me so we can get the record straight.

Let’s start way back in 1994 with InfoSeek. I believe these guys were the first to do Web search by spidering HTML pages. I also think they were the first to do a simple page with a search box in the top and middle, something Google got famous for. Here’s a screen shot from Archive.org of Infoseek’s home page in 1996.


InfoSeek eventually got killed in the search business by Yahoo, Lycos, Excite and AltaVista, and sold to Disney for $76 million. Ouch. No credit, no money. And this was all before Google was well known. (Along the way, InfoSeek’s stock was worth significantly more than $76 million and I don’t know, but perhaps some of the innovators cashed out. Let’s hope some of them did. I know we did at Battery Ventures, but it was at 16X our money, not the 220X the guys at CMGI got from their investment in Lycos.)

Since we’re talking about search, I think we also need to recognize Bill Gross, founder of Idea Lab, who in 1997 or 1998 invented the pay-per-click business model for his company, GoTo.com, which later became Overture.  UPDATE, Sept 16, 2007:  James Hong of Hot or Not emailed me to say that little known fact is that Scott Banister actually invented the pay-per-click ad, brought it to Bill Gross, and then became “VP Ideas” at idealab.  Great stuff, James, thanks!

Bill Gross

Now, Overture eventually sold to Yahoo for $1.4 billion, so Bill must have made some money from that one, right? Well maybe not, because IdeaLab raised so much money from investors in 1999, that the investors may have gotten most of it. I really don’t know. In any case, another vindication of his invention was that when Google went public, I believe it was disclosed that they paid $300 million to Yahoo for the license to their patents so Google could continue to use them. Bill Gross is a smart guy and an innovator for sure. Love and recognition to him.

Further on search, we have to give credit to Yahoo! for being the first to come up with the crazy Internet company name and breaking the mold.

Yahoo logo

Prior to Yahoo!, all important companies needed to have serious names like InfoSeek, AltaVista, and Digital Equipment Corporation. Yahoo! made it safe to have fun, and paved the way for a name like Google. That’s a big deal when you’re talking about marketing to consumers. I love Google as much as the next guy, I really do. I frankly think we’re lucky to have such well intentioned people running it. But I do notice a discrepancy between what they are credited with innovating and the reality. Did they invent Web search? Spidering HTML pages? Simplifying the interface? Business model? Attention grabbing name? They were followers in all of those.

I believe (and correct me if I’m wrong, seriously) the record shows that Google was simply a little bit better in ALL those things in a proven market. At the right time. With the right people. My guess is their success can be boiled down to two main things. First, they turned out to be great consumer marketers. That fact is typified by my favorite innovation of theirs – and I give them lots of credit for this — the “This search took 0.29 seconds” read-out in the upper right corner. I give them a lot of credit for that because that one little feature summarizes the beautifully cohesive, simple and powerful story line which allowed them to grab consumers minds and hearts. It goes something like this: two young Stanford PhD students with a patented algorithm, top venture capitalists come in to help make it a company, biggest server farm, all the techies in Silicon Valley are using it so you should, too, unique culture with 20% time, IPO coming soon so you can get in on it. The story was beautifully played and simple and heart warming enough to be absorbed by consumers.

The second thing Google has is excellence. They have built a culture of unremitting quality which allows them to scale their great product. They have focused on people and never let down their standards. That is something very few companies ever do, and for that, they deserve it all, even if we can’t give them as much innovation love as Newsweek might.