Home ShopTalk Why did Vanessa leave? Vanessa Fox Talks About Her Departure from Google’s...

Why did Vanessa leave? Vanessa Fox Talks About Her Departure from Google’s Webmaster Central and Arrival at Zillow Was there an exit strategy?

The effervescent, upwardly mobile Ms. Fox has announced that she’s leaving Zillow to become entrepreneur in residence for Seattle-based VC firm Ignition Partners. Vanessa will remain active in the search world, as a new features editor at Search Engine Land.
Who’s smiling now? Vanessa Fox seems to be enjoying her new life at Zillow after stepping away from Google’s Webmaster Central, a community she helped both build and promote.

When Vanessa Fox decided to step down from what was arguably, and enviably, the most visible position atop Google’s Webmaster Central community, giving up her role as Google’s leading SEO evangelist, trade show ambassador and celebrated sensei of Google sitemaps, the news hit the search world hard. Like a break shot in billiards, splitting open a pack of brightly colored Google balls, the single stroke shattered one of the Web’s first classic search formations. Was it a trick shot? How could they let her leave? Didn’t she know too much? Where was she going? As seer and sayer of the coveted Google ranking formula, couldn’t Vanessa take her secret knowledge of Google’s “algo” and distill a personal potion (like something that might bubble up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, her favorite TV show) and brew some potent link juice for her next employer?

Having interviewed Vanessa and her Google soul sister, Amanda Camp, in San Jose and in Kirkland just a few months before, I had to investigate the early retirement of this heavy hitter from the Google Kirkland farm team. Seattle had traded Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in the NBA’s off-season. Wasn’t Vanessa Google Kirkland’s ultimate Search all-star, the Ichiro of SEO?

Among the many things we were surprised to learn in this interview was that a.) Vanessa does not have a non-compete agreement with Google; b.) Zillow was largely unaware of Vanessa’s celebrity and search mojo status before she arrived; c.) it’s not as if she doesn’t have to work another day in her life (financially speaking), and d.) Zillow has the potential to be a transcendent search community all its own, right down to the household data Zillow has stored inside its zestimatic, info-packed home valuation warehouse. Yes, we had a few questions. Vanessa had answers.

Seattle24x7: We’ve been mulling over a number of theories about what might have motivated you to leave Webmaster Central. One theory is that, like Princess Leia in Star Wars, you wouldn’t compromise your values as the dark forces of Google’s out of control expansion descended around you. Was anything changing in the relationship between Google and the Webmaster community that might have impacted your role as a community manager?
Vanessa: My friends in the Webmaster community and on the Webmaster Central team actually made it a really difficult decision to leave. I really loved all of those who participated at Webmaster Central, and felt as if we engaged very well. I don’t think anything changed as far as that relationship was concerned. People ask me if it was really terrible working for Google. Absolutely not. It was fantastic! I truly loved building up Webmaster Central. A reporter asked me if I wanted to go to a start-up so that I could make a bigger impact? There again, I said no. I felt like I made a huge impact at Google; Webmaster Central has been able to make a huge difference.

Seattle24x7: Then why the move?
Vanessa: I think at some points in your life you face a choice. I can keep doing this, or I can do this brand new thing. I’m the kind of person who likes new challenges, so here was an opportunity not only to work for a startup – but one that is very much like a smaller scale Google. When I started at Google there were maybe 3,000 people in the company, and when I left, there were 13-14,000. So, Zillow reminded me a bit of Google when I started there (on a much smaller scale).

Seattle24x7: As an early Google hire, didn’t that mean you would never have to work another day in your life — financially speaking?
Vanessa: No, I wasn’t pre-IPO. I still have to work! It was the fact that it was such a small and innovative company that attracted me to Google, not the money. I think Zillow has that same attractiveness right now. A chance to do something new. I’m actually running their ad platform, so it was the opportunity to stay in search, to continue to do something in the space but from a completely new angle.

Seattle24x7: Another theory is that once you’ve reached a certain level of visibility or notoriety with a blog, once you build up a following, you can take your readers with you wherever you go. I mean, there are only a few public personalities at Google, of which you were a very notable one.
Vanessa: A theory I’ve heard from some people is that maybe Zillow was interested in me to get at that. To be honest, I don’t think that’s true. Once I got to Zillow, I think people only realized my search history after the fact. I was talking to a coworker soon after I started, and he said to me “I was just at a conference where we were talking about Web 2.0/SEO stuff, and one panelist kept mentioning you – I had no idea!” Since Zillow is in a different market space, I don’t think they really had a sense of what my former role was in terms of visibility.

Seattle24x7: Given that you were willing to part company with Google Kirkland, just a few miles north of the Microsoft campus, I’m wondering what would’ve happened if Microsoft had approached you and made you a counter-offer? Steve Ballmer seems to be coming to the realization that Microsoft is an advertising company. Did you get any recruiting calls from Redmond?
Vanessa: Living in Seattle, I’m very good friends with people on both the advertising side and the search side at Microsoft. I had a bunch of them over at my house last week. And no, they have not tried to recruit me.

Seattle24x7: Is there a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) or non-compete governing your employment relationships?
Vanessa: There’s definitely an NDA, meaning that I wouldn’t use information that I learned at Google that I wouldn’t otherwise know. I mean, there’s a lot that I know about the search industry that is fair game, but certainly anything about Google’s algorithms is not. There’s not a non-compete in effect, because Google is based in California, and California doesn’t allow non-competes. So you’ll find that often times people go from Yahoo to Google to different places who are competitive.

I don’t think the [competitive] issues will apply in my case because Zillow isn’t really a competitor of Google, and because I’m working on advertising, where I was working on search before. There’s not a lot of conflict there. Certainly it’s useful to know what I know now about the advertising space and the search space, but I think that’s just sort of normal job experience that you would take with you, as opposed to proprietary knowledge.

Seattle24x7: How does the corporate culture differ at Zillow? Google has a reputation for a certain kind of laid-back California style.
Vanessa: Zillow is pretty laid back and casual. More ping pong than pool would be the difference. The Microsoft background shows a bit too. One way is having Talking Rain as a beverage selection…a very Microsoft thing.

In the position that I’m in, I am known as a Product Team Lead, so I basically manage a team of engineers, project manager, program managers, and others, and we can really focus on our product area and build stuff out. I’m also working with [company founders] Rich Barton and Lloyd Fink on the direction of advertising. I work closely with VP of Sales, Greg Schwartz, who came from a background at CNNMoney, Yahoo, and DoubleClick, so he has fantastic online advertising knowledge and insight.

We sense this enormous opportunity for combining these multidisciplinary talents with everything that people want to do in their communities which is what Zillow is all about. You have your home value estimates or Zestimates which is great, and there’s a tremendous amount you can do with real estate agents. But there’s also a lot you can do with the community. Lots of people own a home, and everyone lives in a neighborhood, even if they don’t own a house there. Zillow is bringing more transparency to the local community and to the industry at large, using Web 2.0 technology to give agents, buyers and sellers more tools they can put to use, tools they didn’t have before — as well as tools for neighborhood communities more generally.

Seattle24x7: Speaking of getting to know a community on Zillow, is it true you can ask questions about a neighborhood or a community and direct it toward people who actually live in the neighborhood?
Vanessa: Right, anyone can post a message to ask about any house with our Home Q&A. And not only can anyone talk about any house, but with our neighborhood pages, you can post a question, like “Does anyone have a gardener that they really like?” and get answers. You can upload pictures of your neighborhood. A whole host of things.

Seattle24x7: Wow! That sounds like it really expands the whole model in terms of the economic underpinnings, and the reach of potential offerings. Is that the direction you’re heading in?
Vanessa: That’s definitely one of the directions in terms of community. From a content perspective, we’ve just barely scratched the surface, not only in terms of people finding additional value in exploring and interacting with a community but also from a local advertiser perspective. If you’re a plumber or a roofer and you work in a particular neighborhood, you can see that people who also live in that community are conversing about plumbers, for instance. It’s such a targeted way to advertise to people who are looking for something that is specific to their neighborhood, versus other types of advertising that are more scatter-shot. A contractor could advertise specifically to homeowners who are likely to be remodeling their houses. Advertisers who are interested in people who are moving could target that group specifically.

Seattle24x7: Where is the advertising platform at currently?
Vanessa: Right now, an advertiser can go in and focus in, for example, based on zip code combined with value estimates. So, if you’re an agent, you want to target people who are looking at houses in a particular zip code, and in a particular price range. You may want to show them one certain house over another home. There are also secondary advertising opportunities there – mortgage brokers, for instance, so that’s the first tier, but there are a host of ways we can target beyond that. And the local advertising space we have goes well beyond those involved in real estate transactions. Contextual, useful advertising to homeowners, movers, and anyone living in and discussing a community is powerful for both advertisers and site visitors. The EZ Ads platform lets anyone — even someone who really hasn’t done online advertising before — quickly get up and running with impression-based ads that target by zip code. And we have a full-service sales staff to help with larger campaigns that involve more types of customization and targeting.

Seattle24x7: Sounds like the ultimate form of local advertising?
Vanessa: If you think about it, no one’s really mastered local advertising. It’s the ability to really understand where people are coming from, where they live. We have an ideal way to reach out to agents since we know if you’re logged in as an agent. Or, going beyond real estate, maybe it’s the local plumber, for example. And we make it really easy for those who haven’t advertised online before and want to try it out. For that very easy-to-use advertising option, the CPM is ten dollars for a thousand impressions – – you drop in a picture, you put in a title, you put in a website or a phone number, email address, a few lines of text, and then you tell us where you want to target it.

Seattle24x7: What if you work in a particular neighborhood, can you say, “Hey, I landscaped this yard,” or “I painted this house,” or “I re-roofed this house,” or something like that?
Vanessa: Absolutely. That’s certainly a direction that things are heading. If you’re a housepainter, you could say “Here are the houses I’ve painted! Take a look at before and after pictures and customer reviews.”

Seattle24x7: Who is the mapping partner?
Vanessa: Microsoft Virtual Earth.

Seattle24x7: And you won’t be switching over to Google Maps anytime soon?
Vanessa: Microsoft is doing pretty well for Zillow so far.

Seattle24x7: Do you foresee getting any type of commission in a sales transaction such as helping agents market a house or a For Sale By Owner deal?
Vanessa: You can do a For Sale By Owner now, and agents already post listings, so both of those things are available now, although we don’t take any kind of commission for it. All of that is free. What would be really nice is to say to agents, “You’re going to use Zillow to market a house. Let us put together individualized reports that you could send out to your clients that say ‘Here’s the activity on your house. Here’s the number of times your ad was shown. Here’s how many people posted a question about your house.'” Really giving useful tools to agents, and becoming a very valuable resource.

Seattle24x7: We have to ask, was there a lovely parting gift when you left Google, or a party in your honor?
Vanessa: I cried several times when I left, once when I did my last blog post and everyone commented on it, and expressed how much I was able to have helped them. That was really heartening. Google did throw me a party. Matt Cutts and my boss and a few people from my team, took me out and that was very, very sweet. They did a whole Buffy theme.

Seattle24x7: Sounds like one day you could be back. Maybe not next year, but…
Vanessa: I just saw my old boss, and we joked about me coming back. It’s great though, Zillow’s great. It’s in the heart of Seattle. And it’s an exciting new challenge that I’m really enjoying! [24×7]

Larry Sivitz is the Managing Editor of Seattle24x7.