Herman Tumurcuoglu is a professor at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business and the founder of a meta-search engine called Mamma.com. Last December, Herman kindly shared his experience in the business of information retrieval with Anastasia, his former student. Our conversation about the relationship between business, technology, and people took place in a perfect test-ground for ideas – a noisy Montreal café.
Herman, how did you decide to create a search engine Mamma.com and what kind of problems were you trying to solve with it?
Well, we need to go back to the mid-1990s when the Internet was just starting to gain popularity. From the very beginning, information retrieval was at the core of the web. Back then, the computers still did not have Internet browsers. There was just basically a black screen with green dots. And hyperlinking, linking from one page to another, was the only way to navigate the web. This is when we started calling it “surfing the web”; sometimes you would get the information that you needed right away and other times you would have to click many times to get to that information. So, it seemed like waves there, what was happening. One of the things to do in those early days was to make a list of all your favourite links. So, for example, Yahoo! at that time was not a search engine. It was really just a directory, a common place for bookmarking, almost like Wikipedia, and one of my first interactions with the web was with Yahoo! and its founders, David Filo and Jerry Yang. We all understood that information retrieval was at the core of the surfing activity itself. So, I was studying at Concordia University when Netscape went public and there was a browser. That made things more interesting: you had images and what not. Yahoo! was becoming popular and turned into a company. I went to do my Master’s Degree in Management Studies at Carleton University while other search engines like Lykos and Excite were starting. Both of those companies, along with Yahoo! , went public within months of each other. So, it was just the sign of the times: on the web, search became the most important thing that you could work on.
So, web search is what you wanted to get involved in as well?
Actually, back then, I kind of wanted to become a marketing professor. I wanted to do my Masters, do my research, do my thesis, and, then, go into a PhD program. That was my thinking, but it did not turn out that way. As I saw the growing popularity of search engines, I also discovered an interesting concept of meta-search engines which were designed to retrieve information from other search engines. There were two projects at the time: one from the University of Washington, called MetaCrawler, and one from the University of North Carolina, called Savvy Search. Both of them were still university projects, much like Yahoo! was and, then later on, Google. I thought a search engine searching other search engines would make sense because it wasn’t uncommon for someone to use several search engines to look up a piece of information. I thought there was a way to commercialize the concept… MetaCrawler and Savvy Search were just searching the other search engines and presenting you with a compilation of the results to save you from going from one search engine to another. This was the time when the effectiveness of search hadn’t risen to the level of where Google brought it. But, soon, directories started having an automatic search tool which allowed you to search for a list of web pages in the category you chose. You no longer had to click five or six times to get to a website. You could just search the directory automatically.
Automatically… because the information was not categorized by humans?
No, it was. It was categorized by humans, but you could also access a directory through a search mechanism, similar to how you search a database of a library today. Now, not every library has the same exact content. So a tool that allows you to search all the databases at the same time in parallel – we call that parallel searching – and aggregate the results made sense. And I thought to myself, well, “why not make a commercial application, much like Yahoo!, Excite, and Lykos have become?” It would also be ad-supported. And it would search all those other commercial search engines including some that were made more for research purposes, like AltaVista (which was really the first crawler, a true search engine at that time). And when we brought you the search results back, we would go one step further. Instead of just collating and aggregating the links to the websites, we would run a quick analysis on them and present them to you on a uniform page. For example, we would take out and eliminate any duplicate results showing up in different search engines. If there were many duplicates, we would see that as a sign of importance and rank those search results higher. So we were not just collating and aggregating the results anymore, but also intelligently mixing them up to produce our own search result pages…
Did you work on Mamma.com alone or was it a team effort?
I developed the idea by myself, but then I found a partner by the name of Danny Arsenault. I found him through a network in Montreal. Much like what they do now in the general networking meetings and founder-dating, I met him and told him about the idea. And, for one reason or another, he believed in me. I seemed to have the confidence in what I talked about. And he decided to work on the problem from the programming standpoint. So Danny and I started Mamma.com. I came up with the concept. I came up with the name. I came up with the site design. I came up with all the business end of it. I also got us a second programmer to help Danny. And then I promised them shares. I couldn’t afford things so I got a lawyer and offered him the shares to pay for helping us to incorporate. His name is Frank Crooks and he is also a professor at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business. Between Frank, myself, Sam and Danny, we started Mamma.com. It got incorporated in September of 1996.
In one year? That’s amazing!
Yes, in one year, exactly. In those times, things were getting slower: incorporating would take time. But, then, the web was a smaller place and the things we were working on were not as complex as they are today, if you will. When I look back at it now, we did get a lot accomplished in a year. So we launched the site and submitted it to all the search engines and directories, started telling people about it. People started using it as they liked the concept. Then we needed to get the Information Service Provider (ISP)… Obviously, I couldn’t pay the ISP so I promised them to put their ad on my page… As a result, we ended up having a more compelling offering than the two university projects because Mamma.com was faster and we had this whole idea of doing the ranking. And we had a good name.
How did you come up with the name?
Mamma.com was a search engine that searched the other search engines. It was like the mother of all search engines. The name “Mamma” came just out of whim really and I thought it was a good one. I wanted to stick with it because it made sense for what we were doing conceptually. But also, it was clear that the Internet was not just a North American phenomenon: it was a world-wide phenomenon. In fact, that’s what they used to call it, in the early days, the “World Wide Web” and that’s where the “www” comes from. I liked the fact that the name of our search engine was truly global because I don’t know that many countries where mother is not called “mama” by a kid.
And it sounds more human as well than, say, “Google”… “Google” sounds kind of alienating in a way…
Well, it’s a mathematical term. It really represented what they were about. Google is all about the algorithm whereas Mamma.com was simply a tool of efficiency. Instead of going to search five or six search engines, you can just come to this place.
Go to your mama…
Yeah, go ask your mama. It was very simple. I had some good ideas when I was young…
I’m sure now you can build on that…
(Laughing) I don’t know about that. We’ll see…
How did you communicate with your team? Did you have an office?
No, we didn’t have an office. Everyone worked from home and we communicated by telephone, not even a cellphone. The only one of us who had a cellphone was Danny. And he had a brick phone this big, you know. He was the communications guy and the satellite guy. The fact that the core technical person can be reached at most times actually made things really easy for us.
What portion of the effort was business and what portion of it was technology? Was it 50/50?
I think so. I think that was a perfect marriage there, between Danny and me. I worked equally hard to keep the site up. I did a lot of technical stuff myself. But, most of my brain time was really dedicated to how we were going to turn this idea into a business, knowing full well that it wasn’t sustainable just yet. Everybody, including myself, also had work other than this project, but, somehow, everybody believed in it. I think, today, it would be harder to get people to believe in an idea than back then. There was a little magic there, you know. I think a lot of it had to do with the novelty and the general sense that we were about to embark on a new age. There was this optimism about the web at the beginning and this pragmatism not just in Silicon Valley, but in lots of other places. People were ready to test ideas in a way that they had not been ready to for a long-long time. There was definitively something in the air. We simply answered the demand. I did a lot of the business thinking behind it and Danny did a lot of the technical thinking behind it. It was definitively a 50/50 equation. And it stayed like that for a very long time.
It makes sense because you can’t really divorce those two: business and technology.
No, you can’t divorce those. Mamma.com was one of those marketing-technology internet companies. Those two cultures had to co-exist. It has always been that way in software companies. It was sort of like that at Mamma.com too, but with a greater understanding… Actually, Carleton University was really big on the business and technology research. So, as an entrepreneur, I was very aware of these issues. Also, if you look at a lot of the tech start-ups from that time, the initial business people were all techies. They were generally more aware of how to make technology and business coexist. I think that it led to a particular culture of “dot coms” at that time which still permeates to this day: the whole open-office concept started at that time, casual dressing, certain activities on Fridays.
Yes, the precursors of Facebook culture…
Exactly, we were the precursors for a lot of the things that came after.
You mentioned that the idea was to reach the international audience. Now, with your new business, Reverse Search Engine Optimization (SEO), I imagine you serve the clients from different countries?
Yes, of course. The web allowed us to cross the barriers: oceans weren’t there anymore. After I sold Mamma.com and relieved myself of the duties of the CEO of the company, I travelled around the world. And it was funny because I met a lot of people who knew the website, be it in Greece or Argentina… I even had times when people met me and told friends and some of them drove an hour or two just to meet me at my hotel. Once I left, I realized just how popular I had become around the world. And today it’s the same: we put up the service; we talk about it on the web here and there in micro-sites. We don’t even have one fully official website yet, but just from the micro-sites – English being a popular language – we’ve been able to first cross the chasm between Quebec and Ontario, then Canada and the US, and then, we even got a Brazilian client. I do get inquiries from Europe as well. The thing about the web is that it allows a specialist in the corner shop to reach out to the world.
Do these international interactions present you with any challenges?
Yes, absolutely. Sometimes people submit a website to me that they want to sort of hide from appearing in the search results. And I don’t even know what it’s all about because it’s written in a different language. Time zones are also an issue. When I started Reverse SEO, I aimed to fulfill mostly a local need. I wasn’t necessarily ready to take on an international clientele right away, but they find you. That’s the other thing about the web: you can’t be closed for business in different time zones. I hadn’t had too many issues with the phone ringing at odd hours, but I have seen missed calls at 2 or 3 a.m. They call the 1-800 number, which is really being forwarded to my cellphone. I figured, within North America, that would be fine, but it goes beyond that. At the same time, we are targeted in North America because the biggest markets are in North America. So, for now, there is no justification to scale up the business.
Do people from different countries have different understandings of Online Reputation Management (ORM)?
So far, I think everyone is living the evolution of the web in much the same rhythm. Here’s the way I see it. First, you had put up your website and needed to market it to your consumers (either through television, or radio, or AdWords) so that they could find it. Then, you found how to spread out your message virally and people started sharing links to your website on social bookmarking sites. This interest prompted you to put more content out there, especially, on social media: videos that can be shared and commented on… Next step was content marketing: you made your content shareable and editable and encouraged people to write about it. As a result, the amount of information has increased exponentially. The nature of information that’s being shared has changed. And now, you enter a new phase, the third phase where you notice that there is certain information that’s being shared in a way that you never expected to. Everybody is living that sort of problem around the world in a similar way because the web is global. There are some countries where there are some restrictions on information sharing like Cuba or China, but, generally speaking, in countries with an open information policy, people live the evolution of the web similarly. For example, people started accessing the web through mobile devices in the last few years. And it happened all around the world almost at the same time. I think that people have similar reputation problems and interpret them more or less in the same way, except, maybe for some cultural sensibilities. You can see this even within Canada. If we talk about online reputation problems of Quebec clientele versus Toronto clientele, you will see a difference in how they react, but these are minor differences. There are countries, however, where the reputation management firms rank higher naturally. I noticed, in Belgium, there seems to be a very high demand for these services for some reason. I don’t know if it necessarily translates into people hiring the consultants or experts, but there is a high level of interest in ORM in Belgium. The entire space is called Search Engine Reputation Management (SERM).
What are some of the things you would like to see happen and some that you would not like to see happen in the future of internet business technology?
I am generally concerned about the whole privacy issue. I think how it is interpreted by the general public is somewhat naïve. There are not enough people concerned about companies like Google and Facebook having lots of information on almost everyone. You often hear people say with some sort of pragmatism, if you want to call it, “Well, yeah, I don’t have anything to hide”. And I don’t think that they understand such concepts as, let’s say, predictive analytics. A company can get to know what you like and what you are doing, crunch a lot of data and figure out, before you do, the likelihood of your certain behaviours in order to influence you.
Or deny access to certain services that you might need…
Exactly, these things are very real. There exist moral dilemmas that are far more complex than people are willing to believe, admit, and show interest in, unfortunately. But, there should be some watchdogs and there are though, I think, their voices are lost a little bit. It’s too bad! And I think that one of the areas to deal with this problem is the area that I’m working on, Online Reputation Management. Today, it is very clear to me that our legal system is lagging on many of these issues. I think this has to do with the fact that we are going through such a technological change: it’s comparable to the Industrial Revolution. And in situations like this, the term “digital Darwinism” comes to mind. There are people who just get left behind when they are not thinking what is going on when they use their phone, for example. This gentleman over here does not realize that this tool (Anastasia’s digital voice recorder) can actually record the voicemail he is listening to on speaker… There are lots of things people do not realize because they think they have nothing to hide.
I guess we are still thinking about our technology as simply tools that cannot dramatically affect our lives…
Well, it’s humans that create the technology just like it’s humans who create the economy that hurts our planet, for example. Technology can be hurting us in ways that we don’t at first understand until maybe it’s a little too late. I really do believe that we wished no ill will when we came up with a lot of these creations. If you could tell Albert Einstein about some of his theories and what was developed from them, he probably, wouldn’t be so happy. I think that today’s technology has to confront the same problem. Because the development of technological products today involves a lot of people, with everyone working on their part, the final outcome often turns out to be something that even the developers could not foresee.
If you have any questions about the interview, do not hesitate to contact
Anastasia Prozorova: firstname.lastname@example.org.