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So What Do You Do, Mark Johnson, Senior Program Manager at Bing?

The tech guru breaks down the next frontier in semantic Web search

By Jennifer Pullinger - January 18, 2010
How does one go from studying philosophy at Stanford to working in program management at one of the up-and-coming search engines on the Internet? It's less of an unconventional career path than you might think. Just ask Mark Johnson, senior program manager lead at Bing.

You've heard of Bing by now; it's the new "decision engine" from Microsoft, unleashed on the Internet in June 2009. Johnson, who has spent his entire career in product management, landed at Bing when Microsoft acquired his most recent employer, Powerset, the semantic search engine company, in 2008.

As Johnson prepares his presentation on the evolution of semantic search for mediabistro.com's upcoming Web 3.0 conference January 26-27, the self-professed "philosophy geek" spoke to us via email about what it's like being on the leading edge of search engine development and why it's "never a dull day" in program management at Bing.


Name: Mark Johnson
Position: Senior program manager, Bing
Birthdate: April 12, 1978
Hometown: Suburban Buffalo, NY
Education: Stanford University
Resume: Product management positions at SAP, TeleMinder, SideStep, Kosmix, Powerset, and now Bing.
Favorite TV show: Dallas ("I don't watch TV.")
Last book read: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Guilty pleasure: "Many."
Twitter handle: @philosophygeek

Tell us how your career began and how you ended up at Bing. Did you always dream of working in this field?
From an unlikely beginning studying philosophy in college, I ended up working in product management at the third-largest software company in the world, SAP. After the dust settled from the dot-com bust, I decided to go the startup route and ended up at a string of search startups: SideStep (acquired by Kayak), Kosmix, and Powerset (acquired by Microsoft). Two out of three acquisitions isn't so bad! I ended up at Bing through the Powerset acquisition.

I decided to work in search because I knew that, whereas search was one of the most important technology tools I had ever interacted with, we're only scratching the surface of possibility.

What's a typical day for you?
My current title is a bit of a mouthful: Senior program manager lead. At Microsoft, teams are usually divided into a triad of dev[elopment], test, and program management, and I lead that third branch of the triad and a small team of program managers.

"In a broader interpretation of 'semantic Web,' when computers are better able to understand the syntax and meaning of sentences, we'll be able to generate more readable, smarter summaries."

Program management is a great field for people who don't like typical days. We are the grease that keeps everything running smoothly. I work closely with my development and test counterparts. I interact with all our partner teams at Bing. I help devs when they're blocked by some kind of organizational fluke. I write and review specs. I find bugs. I organize meetings. You will find me either in my home office in San Francisco or our Bing headquarters in Bellevue. Definitely never a dull day!

You are specifically responsible for snippets and the hover feature. What exactly does that mean, or why is that important for users to be aware of?
The relevance team at Bing is responsible for returning you the most relevant Web pages that match your query. The captions team generates the title, the snippet, the URL, and the hover for each of these pages. This is incredibly important to users, because we need to show you why a certain result was picked. In some cases, users will be able to glean that information from just the title of the page and the URL, but often times we'll need to summarize a long page in a two-line snippet to give the user an idea of what's relevant on the page. This turns out to be a surprisingly difficult task and an area of research that's only beginning to be explored.

(By the way, if this kind of project excites you, Bing currently has openings for three dev positions and one program management position. Click here for details.)

Hover is totally new to the search engine world. How did Bing come up with the idea? Did the company see a real need for something like this in the search engine marketplace?
Bing is always looking for new ways to innovate on the user interface. We found that the typical search result caption -- a title, snippet, and URL -- often wasn't enough to convey all of the information that a user needs to determine when to click. However, we also know that adding additional elements to the page disrupts a user's scan pattern and can cause visual clutter and complexity. The hover preview is an elegant solution to add more information density to the page without overloading the user with more page elements. We've already begun adding rich features to the hover preview (try a search like "Kelly shoes") and expect to see a lot more experimentation with the hover in 2010.

"We expect the quality of captions to improve in 2010, but you probably will never directly notice: you'll just be pleasantly surprised at how fast you're able to scan the search results to find exactly what you want."

How can Web content writers and editors use snippets and hover to their advantage for search engine optimization purposes?
The most important part of a caption is the title, so I encourage all writers to make sure that the "< title >" tag is filled out with a succinct, meaningful, unique description of the page. Avoid marketing slogans, jargon, taglines, and think about what a user needs to know about your page. In terms of the snippet and hover, just make sure your page has quality content and my team will do our best to select the most relevant content on the page based on your content and the user's query.

What sort of technical innovations does Bing have coming down the road?
One of the reasons I like search the most is that the most complex and far-reaching technical innovations are often under the hood, completely transparent to the end-user. For example, we expect the quality of captions to improve in 2010, but you probably will never directly notice: you'll just be pleasantly surprised at how fast you're able to scan the search results to find exactly what you want.

How do you think the rise of semantic Web will impact your job at Bing specifically?
Captions is one of the best places to take advantage of semantic Web enhancements. For example, as more sites mark up their structured data, we can display the data as key-value pairs in the snippet. We're already doing this for some sites and will expand. Also, in a broader interpretation of "semantic Web," when computers are better able to understand the syntax and meaning of sentences, we'll be able to generate more readable, smarter summaries.

Google has dominated online search for several years. What's Bing's strategy for making inroads in that market?
We at Bing see ourselves as a decision engine, not a search engine. When we're designing features in captions or elsewhere, we're always thinking about what the customer is trying to accomplish and how we can make those key tasks easier for them.

mediabistro.com's Web 3.0 is convening leaders in the semantic Web area, but a lot of everyday users are still learning about the technology. How would you describe semantic Web and its importance in layman's terms?
I'm not a semantic Web purist who takes the Tim Berners-Lee definition as fiat. I would explain the semantic Web in the broadest possible terms: "Enabling computers to understand our language."

Where do you see Bing in 2010?
I've seen a lot of interesting ideas floating around Bing over the past month and I'm really excited to see the innovations that we deliver over the next year. Definitely keep searching on Bing and you'll see some amazing improvements to your search experience.


Jennifer Pullinger is a freelance writer and book and film publicist in Richmond, Va. Visit her at www.JenniferPullinger.com.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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