Big search company shakeups at Ask.com, Microsoft

As another indication that the already big stakes at play in the search technology market are sliding higher, Ask.com has announced the departure of its Jim Lanzone as CEO, only a couple of days after Microsoft made its controversial $1.2 billion bid for search technology firm Fast Search & Transfer.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's own acquisition chief, Bruce Jaffe will now be leaving that company, too, as of February 29.

In this week's Ask.com shakeup, Jim Lanzone -- who will reportedly now become "entrepreneur in residence" at Redpoint Ventures -- will be replaced as Ask.com's CEO by Jim Safka, the former CEO of Match.com.

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Back in 2006, Lanzone himself took the place of Steve Berkowitz, who left the job of Ask.com CEO to become Microsoft's VP in charge of MSN, an entity that includes the MSN search and portal sites.

Meanwhile, Scott Garrell, who previously served as CEO of IAC Consumer Applications and Portals, will now step into the position of president of Ask.

According to some of the industry buzz in the search market, the management swap-out is part of a plan by Ask.com owner IAC to place the search engine at the center of its corporate priorities.

But on the other hand, could it also be possible that IAC is looking to groom Ask for the shopping block? After all, last November, the diversified holding company announced intentions to spin off several of its other properties: HSN, Ticketmaster, Interval, and Lending Tree.

Ask.com, an company originally known as Ask Jeeves, was purchased by IAC in 2005.

In another recent competitive gesture, IAC last month unveiled a privacy measure called AskErase, which lets visitors get rid of search data stored on Ask.com within minutes.

In stark contrast, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL all reportedly keep users' search data on record for anywhere from 13 to 18 months.

Ask and Microsoft both seem to be racing particularly hard this week to catch up with their rivals in Internet search -- especially with Google, a company that only seems to keep expanding on its already commanding lead. From November to December of 2007, Google's share of Web-based queries stepped up 0.2%, to 68.1%, according to Compete's Web Search Market Share and Volume numbers.

Second-place runner Yahoo dropped a tad to 17%, while Microsoft gained slightly to 9.1%.

Ask.com landed in fourth place at 3.6%, whereas AOL.com took the fifth position at 1.7%.

In a press teleconference earlier this week, Jeff Raikes, the now outgoing president of Microsoft's Business Division, focused mainly on the contributions Fast's technology might make to Microsoft's intranet-based corporate search capabilities as reasons for buying the troubled Norwegian-based company.

But Raikes also acknowledged that Microsoft has been talking with Fast about "the relevance of what [Fast is] doing on the Web."

Despite the well acknowledged technical merits of its search software, over the past couple of years, Fast has suffered a number of setbacks, including issues raised by Goldman Sachs around lack of customer payment; the loss of Norwegian newspaper company Schibsted as a major customer; questions around the legitimacy of a deal with Walt Disney; and layoffs -- announced last June -- of 20 percent of its staff.

Then, on July 30 of last year, Fast announced a drop in revenue of 40 percent on the year, due to changes to financial controls on revenue recognition. In a statement on Fast's Web site, Fast reportedly said that revenues would be reduced to $35 million, and that therefore the company would be unprofitable. Shares of Fast fell 28% on the Norwegian Stock Exchange, their biggest drop in three years.

But things didn't exactly get better for Fast after that. On October 30 of 2007, Fast then reported a loss of $100 million, with license revenue down 55% year-over-year and a significant reduction in market share.

Back in 2005, prior to its own acquisition by Yahoo, search analytics firm Overture tried to buy Fast Search & Transfer. But Overture was then sued by a company named MRT Micro ASA, which claimed that it owned some of the technology that Overture wanted to buy through the Fast acquisition.

Now, in leaving Microsoft after 13 years, Microsoft's acquisition chief, Jaffe, will go out at about the same time as Raikes, whose resignation from Microsoft was also announced this week.

A Microsoft spokesperson today declined comment on Jaffe's role in Microsoft's Fast acquisition and on whether Jaffe's retirement is at all related to Raikes' resignation.

"[But] I can confirm that Bruce [Jaffe] will be retiring from Microsoft, effective Feb. 29. Bruce's contribution to Microsoft's growth is much appreciated and we wish him well in his next endeavor," a Microsoft spokesperson told BetaNews.

"I also want to point out that During Bruce's two-year tenure in this particular role, we did nearly 50 deals including aQuantive, Tellme, and the Facebook investment."

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