eBay Loses Chief Architect of Cassini Search Engine
By Ina Steiner
eBay rolled out its new "next generation" search engine in the U.S. this summer. But despite the fact eBay is now holding off on launching the full functionality of the search technology until next year, the chief architect of Cassini has left the company. Hugh Williams joined eBay in 2009 from Microsoft to become eBay's Vice President of Experience, Search, and Platforms and he left the company last month. Daniel Fain, who also came to eBay from Microsoft, was promoted to Vice President of Search Technology.
Williams is best known among eBayers as the man responsible for its new search engine called Cassini. But only the Cassini backend launched in the U.S., eBay is still running the old "Voyager" search functionality.
Williams told EcommerceBytes on Saturday, "I had a great time at eBay, and I decided to leave after the release of 3.0 and Cassini. I couldn't be more proud of what we achieved and the team that delivered it all." Williams was travelling and could not talk by phone, but said in his email he had nothing to say yet about what he's doing next. "I am taking time off with my family for now, and enjoying some downtime."
eBay was originally planning to fully launch Cassini in 2012, but the full launch was later pushed off to 2013.
eBay finally heralded the arrival of Cassini with a write-up in Wired magazine in June, 2013. "This month, the company has quietly rolled out to U.S. users its new search engine, known inside the company as Cassini. Users of the site won't notice any obvious cosmetic changes announcing something new under the hood (sic). But eBay hopes they will notice a dramatic narrowing of the gap between wanting and finding."
Head of eBay Marketplaces Devin Wenig was quoted in the Wired piece as saying the success of Cassini would be measured by how much better it converts searchers into shoppers.
However, just last month, Wenig said eBay only launched the backend in 2013 (the "infrastructure," as he called it). eBay won't roll out the front end until 2014 ("the front end is the functionality," he said).
Is Cassini in Trouble?
There is confusing messaging coming from eBay about just how much of Cassini's functionality has launched and when, and along with news of Williams' departure last month, it calls into question just how well Cassini is faring.
Williams told EcommerceBytes on Saturday, "(eBay CTO) Mark Carges remarked in my departure note on how Cassini was ahead of the ambitious plans we set for it, and I am personally very pleased with how much search has improved at eBay. We had a nice celebration as I left, and I am proud to now be part of the alumni family and am cheering from the sidelines. It is a great company with great leadership, and I wish them the best."
Yet Devin Wenig said 4 weeks ago, "In '13, we've gotten more lift out of other initiatives than we have out of search. Search contributed a little bit. Cassini's been faster on the backend."
In fact, eBay's CTO Mark Carges told analysts in March that Cassini was already powering two functions of eBay search:
- functionality that allowed eBay to search listings' title and entire description for Completed Searches;
- and for queries that return null or low results;
and he said eBay planned on ending 2013 with the next-gen search rolled out to core in U.S.
Hugh Williams had also told EcommerceBytes in June that eBay had been testing Cassini in "active items" searches in North America since late last year and said Cassini would power all active items searches in North America within the next couple of months, followed by an international rollout of Cassini by 2014.
Yet last month Devin Wenig said, "One of the thing that's misunderstood - may be misunderstood - is that the functionality of Cassini has not yet been rolled out at all," he explained.
Wenig seemed flustered when interviewers questioned him about what they understood to be a delayed launch. "Well, we said we were going to launch Cassini, we have launched Cassini. Everything is running on Cassini. The functionality, the new functionality, the new stuff, we're going to test that into, and that will roll throughout '14."
"Yes we feel good about (Cassini), yes we hope it's incremental, it's not the kind of thing you flip a switch and say right now, all the search is different and it's all good news," Wenig said in that November interview. "There's nothing in the marketplace that works this way. It's not that there's anything that's fundamentally changed about Cassini, it's not that we found anything wrong. There are four or five different functionalities and we'll roll that out progressively as they test."
Why Cassini Matters to Sellers
In promoting Cassini, eBay was candid about the shortcomings of its Voyager technology. How important is search to eBay's bottom line? In explaining why it was going slow in its deployment of Cassini, Wenig said last month, "we're careful how fast we go because 98% of everything we sell is on the back of the search."
To understand more about Cassini's impact on search, see this two-part interview EcommerceBytes conducted with Hugh Williams in June. In that interview, he explained that Cassini would initially mimic Voyager before eBay would proceed with launching some of Cassini's more powerful features.
eBay either did a poor job in March and June of communicating the deployment schedule of those features (Wenig calls it a misunderstanding), or eBay decided to yet again delay the launch until next year. Either way, the fact that Williams departed in November before the launch of Cassini's full functionality - along with Wenig's assessment of Cassini the same month - is troubling.
Williams declined to provide further details about Cassini's schedule beyond noting it was ahead of the ambitious plans set for it, as noted above, leaving it his former employer to clarify the status of eBay's next generation search engine. It's typical of executives who leave corporate positions to be bound to silence.
We reached out to eBay on Saturday and will provide an update in this week's Newsflash newsletter.
Let us know what you think about Cassini as we follow developments on the EcommerceBytes Blog.
Update 12/16/13: eBay provided a statement about Hugh Williams departure.
About the author:
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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