Web Masters Episode 1: Louis Monier

Below is a transcription of  Web Masters Episode 1: Louis Monier. To learn more about Web Masters and subscribe, check out the Web Masters podcast page.



Louis Monier:

So I started designing that and I experiment for a while and over the 4th of July weekend of that year, I had all the pieces together and I fired my engine and I chose the 4th of July weekend because I was afraid I was going to break the internet. So I thought at least it will be not as noticeable. And I think I only broke New Zealand. The connection to New Zealand was so teeny that people noticed. I connected several million pages in two or three days and several million pages was more than anybody had ever seen. So this is sort of the beginning of the story of AltaVista.

Aaron Dinin:

That was Louis Monier laughing about breaking the internet connection to New Zealand, as in the entire country of New Zealand. He did it while building AltaVista, the world’s first, truly consumer-grade, widely used and reliable search engine. So this was well before Google became a company and a verb that was synonymous with the term web search. Now, if you’re wondering how one person could possibly break the internet connection to an entire country, or if you’re wondering what the world looked like before internet search was even a thing, then you’re going to love this episode of Webmasters. Ready to hear this story? Great. Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO MUSIC]

Aaron Dinin:

Welcome to the very first episode of Webmasters. My name is Aaron Dinin, and I am your host. I teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Duke University where I also study the history of the World Wide Web and internet businesses. This podcast, as you can probably guess, is an extension of that work. Through my research, I’ve discovered that the people who built and continue to build the internet businesses that have completely revolutionized the world are some of the most fascinating people you probably never heard of. And they got some incredible stories. I believe those stories need to be told, and I hope this podcast can be a place for it to happen.

We’ve already recorded lots of interviews, so I can promise we’ve got some truly amazing stories in store for you and we’re kicking things off with a bang because on this episode, we’re hearing from Louis Monier, the man lots of early internet adopters describe as the father of internet search. How’s that for a cool title to put in your LinkedIn bio?

Before we can hear Louis’ story, I want to take 20 seconds and thank an amazing partner and supporter who’s helped make this podcast possible. That would be Latona’s LLC. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions company that specializes in helping buy and sell cashflow positive internet businesses.

So if you’ve got a profitable eCommerce shop, SaaS business, content website, anything like that, and you’re thinking about selling it, contact the team at Latona’s. It’s what they do for a living. They’re great at it, and they know how to make sure you can get the business’s full value. Alternately, if you’re interested in running your own internet business, but don’t want to start from scratch, check out Latonas.com. That’s L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com. They’re listing new businesses all the time. Find the perfect one for you. All you got to do is a quick search.

Hey and speaking of quick searches, let’s get back to Louis Monier, one of the guys who actually made quick internet searches a thing if you can believe it ever wasn’t a thing. But at some point people had to invent it and Louis was one of the most important contributors. In order to understand how and why he got involved, we need to understand a bit more about what the internet and the World Wide Web looked like before people could easily search it.

Louis Monier:

I think my first real exposure to the internet was probably in 1980. I was visiting Carnegie Mellon University. I spent a month there and then the following year I moved. Actually went there as a postdoc for a few years and that was my first exposure to the internet. I used it. I played online games. I realized you could print on a remote printer. I started using email on a regular basis and that was a revelation.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay, quick internet history lesson. In 1979, 1980-ish, the timeframe Louis is talking about here, the public internet didn’t even exist. In fact, the term internet had only been first used a few years earlier in 1974 when a man by the name of Vint Cerf, I hope I’m saying that, right. It’s spelled C-E-R-F, Vint Cerf, published the concept of an internet transmission protocol, basically the core technological underpinnings of what would become the internet.

So in 1979, I believe Louis would have actually been using ARPANet, which was the precursor to the internet developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. And I should also add that the World Wide Web, which is an information system that like email exists on top of the internet and uses its own protocol, was still a decade away. It wouldn’t be created until 1989 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee over in Europe and wouldn’t become broadly used until even a few years after that. So yeah, I think it’s safe for us to call Louis Monier an early adopter, and he was excited because he could see what the internet was going to become.

Louis Monier:

Everything was nascunder. Everything was a little bit visible. I took a job at Xerox PARC, which was the famous research center.

Aaron Dinin:

Xerox PARC, P-A-R-C, which stands for Palo Alto Research Center. It’s out in California. It’s the place responsible for among other things, laser printers, graphical user interfaces, WYSIWYG text editors and object-oriented programming, which is basically the underlying structure for most of the software programs you know and love and use just about every minute of your day. So again, we got Louis hanging around some of the earliest big moments in internet and digital history. But if you ask him, he actually feels like he arrived a little late.

Louis Monier:

It was the tail end of it. The people who had done all the innovation, all the discoveries, and I’m going to list a few of them. They had just mutually, they hired me and then would disappear by the time I showed up. So that was an interesting time. Those people had invented so many things we take for granted today, but they had to… Literally, somebody woke up one morning, took a shower and then showed up at work saying, “Oh guys, I had an idea under the shower. Maybe we could write a program in which we could do pretty texts like newspapers. Let’s call that desktop publishing.”

Literally, that’s what was happening in that lab and the same thing for images. You go, “Hey, I have an idea for a game that you and I could play on different computers, and we would see each other and shoot at each other,” and they did that. And so on and so on and so on. So this is the fun of being in the very early part of something is this completely wide-open field. You wake up with a crazy idea. Most of them are crazy. A few of them you don’t know yet, but they will actually have a huge impact.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So you’re literally at the famous Xerox PARC research center using the internet before the World Wide Web even existed. But most people using the internet these days don’t even realize the internet and the World Wide Web are two different things. Can you describe a bit what the internet was like before the web?

Louis Monier:

It was minimalist. It was basically email. You had some way of transferring files, but of course, those files better be small. So you might as well do it through email. The first worm, the first virus. That was a new thing. It was like oh my God, bad things can happen just by checking your email. That was a new concept.

There was very little at the time because there was no real internet. This was the ARPANet. This was connecting a few universities and a few resource centers together. The general public didn’t have access to this. It was a very special world. You had to be in one of those universities in order to even get an email and then things start picking up steam, as you said Tim Berners-Lee-

Aaron Dinin:

Again, he’s talking about Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

Louis Monier:

There was a big decision to be taken. Are we keeping this as a toy for research and academia or do we open it up to the public? Then the right decision was taken, which was just open the gates and just see what happens and a lot happens. So this was early to mid-nineties and that’s when I realized from the lab that there was something big happening and it was moving fast.

Aaron Dinin:

And then, how did you go from tinkering around on this little internet thing to thinking about search and ultimately building a tool to help people find stuff on the web?

Louis Monier:

The very first search engines happened. The very, very first ones were actually academic. Something called WebCrawler. There was something called Lycos. Those things were in a sense toys. They were great experiments. They were actually useful for a while and then the public caught on and those things would just collapse. They just couldn’t get to scale, but the need was there. And I was always a curious guy and I’m like, we need something better and maybe I should try to build it.

So that was sort of my introduction to the web. I probably missed a lot of other aspects of it. I didn’t try to hack anything. I didn’t think of buying every domain name there was, which I should have. There were a lot of other aspects of the early work, but there is more and more knowledge and more and more junk, but there’s also quite a bit of good knowledge in there. It was mostly in the form of knowledge. People were not thinking much about social anything. So it was mostly a place you put knowledge down, advertise yourself a little bit. Commerce was just starting to pick up. And so the big problem was how do you find that stuff? And that was the genesis of search engines.

Aaron Dinin:

Could you take a moment and describe what those early search engines were like? Do you even remember them?

Louis Monier:

No search engine was doing the job. As soon as a new search engine would come, it was instantly swamped and it would take forever before you got an answer and who was going to pay for more servers because [inaudible 00:10:14] were free. Infoseek, I think it was the first one tried to charge for response, but they had a hard time as well. So there was definitely a scale issue.

Aaron Dinin:

In case you didn’t catch that, Louis was basically getting frustrated by the search engines he was using and said to himself, I think I should just build something better. And so he did. First of all, how incredible is that? Second, this is a point in Louis’ story that’s worth highlighting because it’s a good reminder of what kinds of things should be spurring entrepreneurial innovation.

I meet lots of people who say, gosh, I really want to be an entrepreneur. So let me think as hard as I can until I come up with a great idea. But that’s rarely the right approach. You want to be more like Louis who got frustrated with something he was actively using that wasn’t doing the job well enough and when he looked around for a better option, he saw other people were equally frustrated and there wasn’t anything better. So then he said…

Louis Monier:

Well, maybe I should try to build it.

Aaron Dinin:

Of course, there’s always more that goes into the success of a new product than just being able to build a cool new technology. And for me, someone fascinated by the logistics of internet businesses, this is where the story of AltaVista and its ability to successfully scale starts getting really interesting.

Louis Monier:

So this is the real story. So I was inside the research lab that belonged to a company called DEC, Digital Equipment Corporation. Think of it as a baby IBM or an IBM wannabe at the time. So they were doing mainframes, and they were based on the East Coast. We were the West Coast labs. So very far away from the mothership. And DEC was having a hard time. They were going through some pretty tough times because they were not adapting as fast as they should have. So they were missing a lot of boats and the press was pretty bad. And I spent several months, this was in early ’95, just toying with the idea of what would it take to build a search engine?

Well, it’s not that hard. One, you need to go and crawl the web. So you start from a few pages and then you find all the links on those pages and go connect those pages and then you find the links on those pages and keep doing it and try to not go around in circles, but that’s about it. And you get as many pages as you can and nobody had any clue about how many pages were or how many different websites there was. Nobody had an idea.

So you had to crawl the web and then you had to index what you find. So you need to take the content of those pages and build literally the equivalent of an index. Something where you can go search and say I’m looking for this world and that world, which pages have that and which one should I show first?

Aaron Dinin:

So you just built this amazing new search engine. Now, putting aside how ridiculously cool that is, I got to ask, why did you call it AltaVista?

Louis Monier:

Oh boy. Well, first it was an internal project. So, I run my new design over the 4th of July weekend, get our web pages, get the index, play with it, show that to my friends in the research lab. People start going crazy. This is great. We need to do something. And one day I have to turn off the machine in order to erase something and my inbox just explodes. People from the East Coast were going, “Louis, I’m in sales and I cannot live without this thing. Put it back.” Okay. I thought it was just a couple of researchers on the same floor that were using this thing.

So that’s when I got the idea of trying to push it out. So we needed a code name and I don’t know why I was thinking like we see the whole web. So like seen from a mountain and I don’t know why this thing popped in my head, AltaVista. Sounds Spanish. I hoped that it was correct Spanish. View from above, something like that. So that was the internal code name. Then we decided to launch and I’m going to be nasty, but some really incompetent people decided to pay some branding people to come up with a better name. And the name was Gotcha and the logo looked like bird poop.

And so one day before the launch, eventually somebody lost it and said, okay, we cannot launch with this, we’re going with AltaVista. And we had 24 hours to have somebody… A friend of a friend threw together the logo, which was this blue mountain, which I liked. It was cool. And we had to rename everything AltaVista in about 24 hours because Gotcha, no, that was not going to fly.

Aaron Dinin:

I think the name Gotcha is pretty cool for a search engine, but fine, AltaVista is a pretty good name too. Now the basic mechanics of building a search engine sound simple enough at least how you described it, but as we know, there were other search engines before you built AltaVista. So what was different about your search engine versus those other ones?

Louis Monier:

Basically DEC being a hardware company was trying to reverse its luck by coming up with a new architecture, new chip architecture and were running some pretty beefy servers for the time. And they needed to convince people that those servers actually had some value. And once I demonstrated the search engine to the company first, after experimenting and crawling the web and crawl more and I had access to one server, one big server to play. I convinced DEC that we should release this to the public and this would be good PR for the company.

So I basically had access to free expensive servers to try to generate positive PR for the company. And that worked beyond their wildest dream. That was the only positive PR the company had for several years until literally it was sold to Compaq. Didn’t save the company, but it was at least generating positive PR.

Aaron Dinin:

And there’s the big secret to AltaVista’s success versus other search engines. What business school folks might call the competitive advantage. They had unique access to infrastructure. Louis had direct access to million-dollar servers at a time when people just didn’t have those kinds of resources. There was no AWS so nobody could click a few buttons and scale up to support millions of new users, but lucky for Louis and for millions of early internet users including myself, the company he worked for DEC was producing big beefy servers and it was willing to let him leverage those servers for AltaVista as more and more people started using it.

At the same time, AltaVista’s existence as a way of demonstrating the power of DEC’s servers also contributed to its eventual downfall. As part of DEC, AltaVista didn’t need to be profitable, which also meant it never got the resources it would need in order to keep innovating as more and more users adopted it.

Louis Monier:

We launch. The thing just explodes. Every day we get more traffic than the previous one, and then you beg for more servers and you put the new server in and it keeps going and so on. So we played that game for a while.

I’m going to concentrate on the positive. I think it had a really good impact. So it was really, I would say a force for good for two or three years before basically spam started damaging it. But I’ve met so many people who say it was my first search engine. I loved it. I used nothing other than that. And eventually, I switched to Google. That’s the part that I got hooked on.

This was really not even an internet. Something that was useful. I call it a web service. And so that was very cool. But eventually, DEC was not… We didn’t have the means to [inaudible 00:17:48] further tech so spam started really getting to us, and we didn’t have the technical means to do this. And this is when a couple of guys at Stanford were having some ideas and were experimenting that became Google. That’s when it was time to abandon ship and do something else.

Aaron Dinin:

Oh gosh, I actually remember those days. It got harder and harder to find what I was looking for on AltaVista because the earliest results were increasingly people who’d… They’d obviously figured out how to game the system. So from my end, it seems like you must’ve had some relatively rudimentary search algorithms that were easy enough to trick. And so people what, started tricking them, right?

Louis Monier:

Exactly. I think one of the characteristic of the early internet is that it was mostly techies were thinking about it and experimenting, and they live in a world where, of course, when you use technology, it’s only for good. Who would use technology for a bad reason? So you don’t think immune system, which you should, and then you realize one morning that you don’t have any immune system, but there are a hundred thousand people out there trying to get their site to be number one, and they will do what it takes to get there and in the process they will drag you down. And that’s basically what happened to that site.

Aaron Dinin:

And why didn’t you solve that problem? Was it a case of you not wanting to, or just saw Google coming along and realized it was a fight you couldn’t win, but was it something else?

Louis Monier:

We didn’t have the resources and it was dragging on. It had been like three years. There was no way to attract the smart people. The smart people were outside doing other startups. So that’s when I lost interest and left.

Aaron Dinin:

So out of curiosity, do you ever regret that? Do you ever look at Google and think to yourself, ah, that could have been me?

Louis Monier:

Well, no, no, no, no. I have infinite respect for those guys. Way back when I was at AltaVista, one afternoon, my phone rings and there’s this guy who says, “Hey, my name is Larry Page and I’m from Stanford. And we’ve done this small thing, and we’re trying to sell it for a million dollars.” And my answer was basically, well, I don’t have any budget. Sounds great, but I don’t have any budget. And so I hope that Larry and Sergey are forever thankful I’m not buying up because they would have died. The project would have died.

So that’s my contribution to Google is making sure they were not bought too early. They did the right thing. They didn’t have the shackles that I had. They could turn it into a real company. They could raise money. And they did everything right. They did so many things right. And same thing. They had a very clear vision from the beginning. They knew where this was going to go.

Aaron Dinin:

WTF. I believe that’s what the kids these days would say. Louis Monier and DEC had the opportunity to buy Google for $1 million from Larry Page and Sergey Brin way back when they were still developing it at Stanford. And they passed. I don’t know about any of you, but speaking for myself, I made a lot of mistakes in my life and none of them remotely compare to that. Louis takes it all in stride and yeah, to be fair, he’s done some pretty cool things since AltaVista.

Louis Monier:

After that, I spent four years at eBay. I was running a small research group, and we did a ton of interesting stuff but the most interesting one was recreating from scratch the search engine for eBay. And that was something because it didn’t look like AltaVista at all. It was a different beast. It had to be optimized for other things. When you do a big search engine like an AltaVista or a Google, one you crawl the web and then a while later you crawl it again.

In those days, there was no notion of is it up to date? But when you run eBay and this was in the very early 2000, well, the person who just listed that green vase is expecting to search eBay and find it instantly. Where’s my vase? I just posted it. Said yes and you said, got it. So where is it? And the search engine was not doing this. So that was one of the requirements. So the requirements were very different from internet search and that was a lot of fun to do that. We literally wrote the search engine from scratch. Pretty sure it’s still in some variation running.

Aaron Dinin:

Oh my gosh. I was one of those people in the early ‘2000s listing lots of stuff on eBay. My first company was an eBay store while I was in college. And I remember getting so frustrated when my listings wouldn’t show up instantly and I also remember when that stopped happening. So clearly Louis was unwittingly having a big impact on my life all along. And I suspect he’s had one on a lot of your lives as well, maybe through AltaVista or eBay, but he’s also had stints with Airbnb, 23andMe, and even spent a bit of time working for Larry and Sergey over at Google.

In case you’re wondering what he’s up to now, Louis is passionate about big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence. In fact, he sees that area of research and development as the next big greenfield opportunity, much like what the internet was back in the early ’90s.

Louis Monier:

To be there at the very beginning of the internet. And everything was a new idea and this open field. You just land and this is a desert continent. What are you going to find or what are you going to do there? Turns out I feel I’ve felt that three times.

So the first time was before the internet, computers were starting to become… There was that phase of what can we do with this computing thing which normally is only for technical people and government stuff and maybe big banks, but why do you need one of those in your living room? So you were mostly you and your machine and a stack of floppy disk, what could you do with that? And that was fun to watch.

And the second time was the internet. We went from early ’80s to early ’90s and seeing the explosion that happened. And the third time is five years ago, starting five years ago with machine learning, also known as AI but I prefer machine learning, where same thing. This was a very small specialized domain for a very long time. And convergence of all the right things, machines were getting big enough. There was enough data floating around the web to feed that beast. Enough people were interested.

And when that happened and all those things happened around sort of 2012, 2012 to 2015 is when the inflection point happened. The same thing happened with machine learning. What are we going to do with this thing? And we’re still in the middle of it.

Aaron Dinin:

Still in the middle of the machine learning and AI inflection point as the technologies become mainstream. That’s Louis’ assessment. So just like he did back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he’s placed himself in the middle of what he believes are going to be the next collection of world-changing technologies. I have no idea what he’s going to come up with next, but I have a feeling it’s going to change a lot of people’s lives. When that happens, hopefully, we can get him back here on Webmasters to tell us all about it.

In the meantime, we got lots of other great episodes coming your way because there are a lot more people who have helped build and shape, not just the World Wide Web, but the world we live in because the web is such an important part of it. To hear those stories, be sure to subscribe to Webmasters wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. Hey, and while you’re subscribing, take a moment to add a five-star review or whatever the highest rating is that you can give us on your platform of choice. Those reviews help people discover us, which in turn gives us the cachet we need to get more incredible guests.

Also, you can follow us on Twitter and tell us what you thought about this episode. Our handle is @WebMastersPod. You can follow me on Twitter. I’m @AaronDinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N-D-I-N-I-N. I also publish lots of content about entrepreneurship on Medium.com. So search for my name there to see everything I’ve written. And I want to give a big old thanks to our guest Louis Monier for sharing the story of AltaVista. I also want to thank our amazing audio engineer, Ryan Higgs, and our amazing partner and sponsor Latona’s. Don’t forget to check them out at Latonas.com.

Last and hey, certainly not least, I want to thank all of you for listening and supporting this podcast. I don’t know exactly where it’s going to end up taking us, but I do know if this first conversation with Louis was any indication, we’re going to discover some really incredible stuff. I know I can’t wait. I hope you can’t wait either. I guess we’re going to have to because right now, well, it’s time for me to sign off.

Speaker 3:

Goodbye.