The following is the transcript of an interview of Justin Osmer, a Senior Product Manager at Microsoft. Justin is with the Online Services Group, which includes both MSN and Windows Live, including Windows Live Search.
Eric Enge: Why don’t you start by providing us a brief background of yourself, and how you got to Microsoft, and what you are doing there today?
Justin Osmer: Sure. I am Senior Product Manager on Web Search and my responsibility here is primarily communications for the search product. So, I manage the public relations and corporate communications on the product side, and interface with the development team, and the product planning team to better understand what they are trying to accomplish, and help them communicate that to the world. So, when we launch something new, they have me come in and listen into what they are working on, and I can offer up suggestions and recommendations. It’s a very fluid, well-connected group which is great. I technically sit in the OSG group which is the Online Services Group here at Microsoft, and we are made up of MSN and Windows Live today.
Search is my 99.9% responsibility. I have been with the company almost three years now, and prior to that I was doing some similar work over at Amazon.com. I bumped around the Bay Area doing the dotcom thing for a while; was out Chicago doing some other marketing and communications related things for startups. So, it’s been a fun journey; but I am a native to the Seattle area, and I am happy to be back.
Eric Enge: Can you give us a brief background on the Live QnA product?
Justin Osmer: Sure, I’ll back up even just a little bit further on the Search products on a whole. Last September we introduced Live Search, which was previously known as MSN Search. And, the main difference that you will see on that product at Live Search today is that the UI is significantly different. But, we have also introduced a number of different verticals or content categories in which to search, and QnA was one of those that was introduced in beta form, and is still in beta today. It’s available in the “more” button that you can click on along the scopes bar just below the search box.
QnA starts to get at a larger problem of search that we would love to help solve. That is that it takes a long time to get to the answer (or the information that you are looking for) to some of the more complex queries that you might enter; the algorithms can only do so much for you there. And so, it gets to a point where it makes a lot of sense to have another person help you answer that question. And, how can we put you in touch with another person? And, how can we tap into this vast community of users that we already have inherently baked in if you will into, Windows Live. So, we have our Windows Live Hotmail folks, we have our Windows Live Instant Messenger folks. That’s a huge database of people who have signed into our service, have a login, email address, and participate at some level (More than 500,000 total). Being able to use that group of people to ask questions is a great resource.
And, it’s all free, and it’s a relatively painless process to get onboard. What happens is that you can come in and get answers to questions that you may not be able to get from the Search Engine. So at the bottom of the standard search results we suggest to people that did not find what they were looking for to try asking QnA. There is also a vertical drop down in the more section now, and we are going to be working on some other things down the line to further integrate the QnA service. So, you could certainly see a scenario where some of the QnA answers get built into our Instant Answer feature, which right now we are pulling information from databases that we have with Encarta and FOX Sports and so on and so forth.
Eric Enge: Can you just describe that potential integration into Instant Answers a little bit more?
Justin Osmer: Yes. QnA is a very good place to go for opinion based sorts of things. Where is the best place to do X; you know Search Engines don’t really have an opinion. A good example could be “where is a great Italian place in Seattle?”. The Live QnA system will get you an answer.
One of the features that we introduced at the inception of the project was tagging, so you can tag your question, and we will automatically populate it based on what you have written there. So, chances are something like that query, Seattle would probably be clicked already, maybe restaurant or food would be clicked already, and then I could add others if I wanted to. So, I could add Italian, I could add eating, I could make up my own tags, and then add some more information or more context to that question if I wanted to.
And, then it posts automatically to the system. People will then log into the system, and they can go directly to answer questions, because we have a whole lot of users who spend a lot of their time just simply answering questions, that’s what they love to do. We have another group of people who love to ask just questions, and then there is the combination people who do both.
Currently, a question is kept “live” or “open” for three days, and you can go in and answer that question with your opinion. You can see the context that the question asker has put in there to give you the more information. Put in your answer, and then the community votes on what they think is the best answer. And the vote of the person who asked the question initially gets weighted a little heavier typically. But, there could be a whole range of answers in there, and then at the end of the three day period it basically turns off, so you can’t add anymore answers. And, the best answer is selected, and then that becomes your question and answer pair that’s in the system. So, if three days from now you went in and asked where is a great place for Italian in Seattle; it would popup and say this question, or a question very similar to this, has already been asked. Here’s the question and answer, and then you can decide oh great, that’s what I needed, or you would say oh no, I want something different and go ahead and proceed to ask your own question.
Those question and answer pairs are then baked into the QnA vertical, and are there forever basically. So, in a future scenario; those types of question and answer pairs could make themselves available to you in a number of different places. So, it could be that when you go to the core Search Engine, and you type in where to eat Italian in Seattle or Italian restaurants in Seattle, or some other related query like that, you could very well get an Instant Answer from QnA that has that answer there. Also, we are integrating our maps product into the Instant Answers as well. So, there are a lot of unique tie-ins there that you could see. The other thing we have discovered with QnA is that a lot of it is local based, so there will be some very good opportunities to integrate the two things together. So, you could not only get an answer but maybe you can get a map or driving directions too. There are lots of of possibilities of where we could go with this, so stay tuned!
Eric Enge: So it seems that you have handled your integration of the QnA product than what Yahoo has done with Yahoo Answers.
Justin Osmer: Correct. Since day one, we built it not necessarily as a destination site, which is kind of different from what our competitors have been doing, most obviously, is Yahoo. They did a great job out of the gate and, are really building a pretty solid base of community around their question and answer product. But, they have built there is really is a destination site, and seem to promote it as such. Whereas, we took a little different tact and that ours is not necessarily a destination site, but it’s more a very integrated piece of the all-up search functionality we offer.
Eric Enge: So, you view if as an enhancement to Live Search, as opposed to a standalone site.
Justin Osmer: Exactly.
Eric Enge: Right. So, that will drive the differences in your strategy in the long term then?
Justin Osmer: Yes.
Eric Enge: Can you talk a little more about the Hotmail user-base, and the Live Messenger user-base? Just what are the sizes of those?
Justin Osmer: Windows Live Hotmail has more than 260 million users, and Messenger has more than 255 million users. That’s a great group of folks who have already signed in. So, that’s a great opportunity for us.
Eric Enge: Right. So, what do you do then to convert those people, and market to them to get them to participate?
Justin Osmer: Well, that’s a great question. We can do that in a number of different ways in instant messenger. There is an MSN today page that pops up when people open up Messenger which is an opportunity for us to tell people about it. We can do some unique things with advertising in instant messenger, where we sell advertising there. We often times do some of our own in-house advertising in there. And, same is true with Hotmail.
People can subscribe to a monthly newsletter on Hotmail, and we can put information like that in there. So, that’s one way, or when people first signup for the first time. There are a number of informational or educational opportunities there for us to get the word out about it. And, then as I mentioned too, we are going to be doing more and more with the search by itself to elevate QnA, and make sure people know that it’s there. But, right now we have got a good solid-base of users and it’s continuing to grow.
Eric Enge: Right. So, what is it that drives someone to get active answering questions?
Justin Osmer: Well, I think we inherently as humans, we love to be able to share information that we have. And, also we have a point system. So, the more involved you are in the site, the more points you get. You can get points for answering questions, for asking questions, for having your answer being voted the best answer, and for voting for answers. So, lots of different incentives are baked in there now; those points currently today aren’t really worth anything yet. But, they are more kind of an honorary badge of, hey this person is super involved, and that seems to be enough for people to try and get high-up in the points.
But, I also think that once you get in and start experiencing it, it does become a little addictive when you start to realize the amount of information that you personally know or have in your head about different topics of information. So, you can start scrolling through that unanswered questions portion of the site and find yourself answering four questions or five questions before you know it. And, so it becomes kind of an addictive thing in a sense because you realize wow I do have information I can share with people and that helps it grow and helps people stay involved. Once you go in for the first time and ask a question and get an answer, or a few answers back and have a good experience, you can get hooked. You are more inclined to stay more involved and participate. Many people feel that hey, somebody answered my question, I should go in and answer someone else’s. I think there is a certain element of that involved as well.
Eric Enge: Yeah, You see a lot of the same dynamics in the blogosphere, where people are commenting on each others blogs and sharing information.
So, not that long ago Google dropped out of the question and answer site business. Do you have any insight as to what was behind that or any thoughts as to what was going on there?
Justin Osmer: From what I could tell what they were trying to do was focus on “having experts answering your question”, and then having a payment structure or subscription structure around that to pay for it. I think that was their model- hey ask a question, give us a little bit of money and we will go get you the expert answer And, I think that they most likely just didn’t get the traction they needed and they decided to shut it down. But, I can’t speak for them, I don’t know specifically but that would be my guess.
I think you can see that Yahoo Answers seems to be the gold-standard right now. They did an interesting thing where they tapped into celebrity and tapped into some experts who did it for free. So, didn’t cost me, the user, for the questions I got answered. I think that is a more realistic model because it gives the answerer credit and gets them some notoriety in the service. And, then as answerer or as an asker you are not having to really pay for anything but, you get this unique experience. At this point we are not looking at a pay for model; it just doesn’t make sense for us at this point.
Eric Enge: Right. So, you mentioned the differences to what you are doing and what Yahoo is doing; basically you are enhancing search and they are building a destination site.
Do you see them as a direct competitor in this space or how do you think about that?
Justin Osmer: I would say they are for all intents and purposes our main competitor. They have ask a question; answer a question, learn more sort of thing. They were out just a little bit ahead of us and did a whole lot of promotion around their product. They had a big launch event and did a whole bunch of press and marketing on it. And, we have yet to do that, because we are still in beta. We are still learning a lot about what our community wants, and what the users need out of the product. I think once we get to a tipping point there, you will see us ramp up the marketing effort and do more of that education stuff that we talked about a little earlier. But, at this point we are happy where we are.
Eric Enge: You mentioned earlier the points system and the fact that they are not redeemable. Any plans to do that in the future?
Justin Osmer: Well, absolutely that’s something that we are looking at. One of the things that we heard from people very earlier on was that they were concerned about answers from people who are compensated. They were concerned about having people motivated in inappropriate ways; resulting in a false premise for why they would be involved in the community. Some people would go in and juice the system and not really add value, but still be garnering points. Some of the answers would not be as genuine as if that incentive platform wasn’t there. And, we took some of that feedback to heart and realized that we do want people in there who have a legitimate question that they want answered, and have legitimate answers. And, we do have an editorial team that reviews some of that stuff to make sure that everybody is above board. But, it’s at a whole new level of experience if there is some financial gain to be made, your incentives for participate many change a little bit. But, we are going to approach that at some point. The Xbox Team with Xbox Live has a point system now. So, there’s some unique opportunity, certainly across Microsoft as a whole; where you could earn some points that could be redeemable for Xbox Live points or maybe even product points that you could buy the next version of Vista or what have you. It’s something that we have looked at and will continue to talk with the community about.
Eric Enge: I guess one of the big questions is how do you control the voting for answers scheme so that people don’t artificially push their answers to the top.
It helps, I suppose that the person who asks the question gets an extra weighted vote, I think it’s like three times the normal vote. But, I suppose that would be the real challenge because people would figure out ways to robotically inflate their answers.
Justin Osmer: Yes. It’s unfortunate that there is always somebody out there trying to game the system at some level.
Eric Enge: It’s a funny world we live in. Well, excellent, do you have any other comments for our readers?
Justin Osmer: I would just encourage folks to come check us out. The direct URL is QnA.live.com, or if you want, just go directly to live.com and click on the more button under the search box. Just give it whirl and send us your feedback. We do read all of that feedback and appreciate people being involved in it. We definitely see it as an important part of the search puzzle, that of helping people get the answers to their questions quickly and easily, which is the nut that we are all trying to crack.
Eric Enge: Thank you very much Justin, for taking time to speak with me today.
Justin Osmer: Absolutely, thank you Eric.