The History of AOL with Gerry Campbell [FourWeekMBA Podcast]

Gerry Campbell, CEO, Entrepreneur, and Author. Former Senior Vice President and Group General Manager at AOL, between 2001-2006. And today CEO at Kryptonomic.io, helps you understand your customers and deliver the Web3 projects they love.

With Gerry, we go through the early years of the commercial Internet. The first tech giants, as walled gardens. The rise of search engines, and from there the take over of Google. A startup in the mid-90s become a tech behemoth by the early 2000s. 

We revisit the history of the key events that led to the rise of Google and many interesting events in between. Gerry’s incredible experience at CompuServe, Compaq, AltaVista, and AOL is an incredible opportunity to make sense of these events.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Gerry, thank you for joining this conversation on the Four-Week MBA podcast, and it’s a pleasure for me because you have an incredible experience, especially in a period of time that was an important transition, it actually represented an important transition for the internet, for what today we call Web 1 or Web 1.0. But really, you have been actually senior vice president and group general manager for AOL during the period of 2001-2006, you also have been at AltaVista CompuServe. So, when I looked at your past experience, to me, it was such a pleasure to invite you for this conversation, so thanks for joining.

Gerry Campbell:

Oh, I’m excited to be here. There’s so much really cool history that I was fortunate enough to observe, participate in a little bit of, and I love to share the stories because it’s a time when nobody was really looking, there was really cool stuff going on, and it turned out to be important. And I think we had the idea at the time, but I love going through this stuff. It’s fun to share, and there are some really great business principles as well.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Yeah. And that’s the whole aim of the podcast. So, we try to look and dig into very interesting business stories and history and try to reconstruct it based on the people that really lived through it.

So, to start a little bit from your perspective, 

Table of Contents

How did you end up working for several of the first big tech players on the internet in the first internet era? How did you end up there? How did it feel to work for those companies at the time?

Gerry Campbell:

Yeah, sure. So, I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, which is an unexpected place maybe by some to be involved in such early things, but I grew up just miles from CompuServe, which was one of the very first online services actually dating all the way back to the late 1960s, so there was a big history there. It was an established company. My personal interest was I’d always been a tinkerer, I got in trouble for tearing my bikes apart, and I got in trouble for taking computers apart as I got older, and so as a tinkerer, obviously, and I think I was an entrepreneur as well. Science showed very early because I started a bike shop in fourth grade or something like that. So, the internet and the technologies to me were fascinating.

So, I got a copy of WIRED Magazine number issue two, and it talked about this online world and it was happening in IRC chat. And I think I was probably in my early twenties at the time and my attention was just captured. I thought this was the coolest thing ever. I’d been up to my elbows inside my Mac at that time and taken it all apart and was just fascinated with things it could connect to, and I was goofing around places and pulling files and telnetting and all that crazy stuff. So, I worked in between undergraduate school and then went back to Ohio State. I Actually went to Ohio State twice, which is in Columbus, and I had the opportunity to get an internship at CompuServe, which was just, I don’t know, 10 miles away, it was very close. And so that started my journey.

And I got involved with one of the companies that, to many people, it didn’t seem as sexy as Sun Microsystems or some of the companies that were out in the Bay area, Palo Alto Research Center, I had my eyes fixed on that, but when I got involved in CompuServe… And this would’ve been… I started there in 1995, the Netscape browser was in beta at the time, CompuServe was about to buy SpryNet. So, the whole idea of all these really clunky tools that we were using to get around this crazy internet thing were about to be replaced by the browser, and that was really what locked me in because I ended up working on internet projects at CompuServe, which was an online service and much more focused on the core subscription service that people connected through a dedicated software client and I was working on browser-based stuff. So, that’s how I got started.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Yeah, incredible story. And just for a bit of context for the people that would be listening to this episode, at the time, really, the internet was something completely different.

 It was like more a proprietary network that users accessed through CompuServe or like AOL or Prodigy. You had the chance to access those walled gardens where you had a set of services like email or for instance boards, whatever, but you paid a subscription, as you said, it was a subscription-based service, at least initially, and then after advertising picked up, especially when search engines came along. 

What was the context back then? Can you give us a bit of an overview? 

Gerry Campbell:

Yes. So, there was Prodigy, there was CompuServe, there was a thing from GEnie called the GEnie Information Service, so services were popping up. CompuServe I think was the biggest of them, but just to put it in perspective, we had a couple million paying users at the time, so it was big for what it was, but then if you go to the full context, people didn’t have personal computers in their home very frequently, it was not that common.

At the time, it was big, but it was still… When I was in business school right around the time I joined CompuServe, some of my friends who were going into logistics and other things and they were taking their MBAs and doing these incredible things, would tell me, “Don’t waste your MBA on… Don’t go to the internet. Nobody’s ever going to transact over the internet. It’s just a mess.” And I said, “I don’t know. I feel it. I think I’m going to do it.” But that was the context. Computing was not a big part of people’s lives, it was something you did for school projects, if you were in the government, you had access to the internet, if you were an early adopter, you might have AOL at your house… Well, not even AOL at the time, it was, you might have GEnie or Prodigy or CompuServe at the time. So, it was just a very small part of our society.

How did they (AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, and GEnie) end up becoming giants, and did the perception also change? 

Gerry Campbell:

Yeah. I think those were really fast few years. So, CompuServe was acquired by AOL, which was a startup that was much smaller at the time. What AOL got right, and I give AOL a lot of credit for figuring out that user experience was the most important thing. So, CompuServe still had email addresses that had numbers, they were all numbers, it was very complex and not very visual.

It was just super geeky. Even though there were buttons you could click and it was a whizzing interface, it was not sexy. And AOL got a lot of credit for doing a couple of things. 

  • The first thing is they figured out how to make a service that the average person could use, and I think that’s pretty huge. 
  • The second thing is they figured out marketing. So, those AOL CDs that you could get a certain number of hours free were everywhere. They were in the magazines, the SkyMall magazines on airplanes, they were sticking to cereal boxes, they really understood marketing.
  • And then the third thing was that computing was moving along at the same time. 

So, we went from computers being super, super expensive, and inaccessible to… I ended up at Compaq. You didn’t mention that. I went from CompuServe to Compaq, because the frontier at the time was Compaq was selling five million computers a year and I wanted to make sure that every single one of those people signed up to get on the internet, and so did Compaq, so it was a great fit. So, that was the group I worked on there. So, the whole context of computing moving at the same time, AOL figuring out marketing and figuring out how to deliver a technical experience to the mass market, that was really the catalyst. And then in parallel to that, the browser wars started and browsers got more and more capable, the languages behind them got more and more capable.

So, by the end of the ’90s, just to fast forward a little bit, I went from CompuServe to Compaq and worked on the internet out-of-the-box experience with a team of a couple of people, and then we ended up owning AltaVista. 

So, Compaq owned AltaVista, and a big hardware company, nobody really knew what to do with it, so a small team of people was put together to spin it out. And I was one of the most junior people on the team, but we figured out, 

“Okay, let’s spin AltaVista out, take the search engine and add some pieces to it.” 

And that period of time between ’95, ’96 to ’98, ’99, those years were incredible in terms of the companies that emerged, the business models that emerged, and the people.

So, just a weird little piece of history. When we were looking to spin AltaVista out of Compaq, we wanted to put some capabilities with it. So, the idea was, let’s put a shopping engine with it, so we acquired shopping.com, and we wanted to put media with it, so we built a media arm, and then we also acquired Local, because the belief was the internet should be local, and evolution of the Yellow Pages to something far greater. And there was a company called Zip2 that was founded by two brothers that we didn’t know anything [at the time]: It was the Musk’s brothers! (Elon and Kimbal).

And so, at that time he was nobody, there were just all of these characters around, all of those technologies and everything moving really quickly. So, Compaq bought shopping.com and then also bought Zip2, rolled it into AltaVista. And that all happened from the time when everybody was accessing the internet by the command-line interface, which was where I started in ’95, up to ’98, ’99, where Elon had emerged, the search had become a dominant model, and the closed Walled Garden services had started to get competition from the open internet.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

And this is a very interesting point which you’re making because now we are going to look at it forward in this episode. But like anything, when a new market opens up, you expect the market to move in one direction, and instead it’s going to open up in a completely different direction. As you said, the giants of the time were actually putting together all the pieces to offer a comprehensive service within their Walled Garden, also the way Compaq, I guess, was doing it by adding Zip2 because Zip2 was a service that provided local directories, I guess.

So, as you said, the two main applications that were killer applications at the time were, as you said, probably eCommerce, local directories, and probably email and boards pretty much, but I guess a few people would’ve expected that search would’ve taken over and wrecked them all apart, or at least… I mean, until a certain point, it was not clear that search would take them all over, and then after it became very clear when a company like Google probably took over so fast so quickly, and then it became clear that probably search was something that could dominate the second wave or let’s say the last part of the first wave of the internet, of the web 1.0. And that’s pretty interesting.

So, to remark a little bit, this transition, now let’s say you went from the experience at CompuServe and then CompuServe actually was acquired by AOL to build up the largest tech player at the time, so the first tech giant of the internet era, and then after, you moved to search with Compaq and AltaVista, and then you went back to AOL. 

What made you transition through various tech players of the time? 

Gerry Campbell:

Yeah. There are a couple of things. So, I was involved very peripherally in AOL’s acquisition of CompuServe, which was, I was the guy three tiers down who was told to go fetch some data, right? Because at the time, I had the personal page service and a business hosting service, so when AOL got interested in the internet stuff, that’s… But I had lived in Columbus my whole life and wanted to get out. It’s a great town, it’s even better now, but I wanted to go see the world. So, my leaving CompuServe was not as much driven by where the technology was going, it was more to just wanting to be in the game, right? Excuse me, not where the technology was going, but where the brands were going. So, I wanted to be in the game, I intended to go to the Bay area, ended up in Houston at Compaq.

What’s interesting though, is the reason I went back to AOL, so the time that I had at AltaVista was one of those crazy times where we didn’t know stuff. When we did a business deal, we would have a conversation with a company, there was something… vicinity.com. We spent weeks having these fantastic partnership discussions with the team there, and then when it came all down to it, we were like, and you pay us for that, and then they said, “No, no, no, you pay for that.” And so, it was so confusing because nothing had been solidified. What had started to solidify at that point was paid search.

So, I was in the shopping group at AltaVista and my job was to figure out how to turn what at the time was the world’s largest search engine, from a strategic perspective, how do we get traffic into the shopping experience? How do we present purchasing opportunities? How do we do our search advertising? So, there were a lot of people working on it at the time inside of AltaVista. My particular angle was, how do we get all of these products? We had a million products in the shopping.com database and we were a shopping search engine, one of the first pay-per-click shopping search engines.

And so what I saw there was that paid search was big, and the thing that occurred to me, and I give my colleagues at AltaVista a lot of credit for this, there was high sensitivity to user experience, so as much as we were building a business and a technology, there was a great usability team there that was really focused on making sure that AltaVista delivered the results that people were searching for, and that was my first clue that paid search was going to be a big deal because when we put shopping results into the AltaVista search engine when it matched with the user’s intent, we did a much job of getting people to the products that they were interested in finding. So, I developed a respect for users and for user intent.

The trip back to AOL… So, I moved to Virginia from Southern California at the time, and it was to run search. And at that time, AOL was still very much a Walled Garden. It was taboo inside the company to talk about how the internet was going to be bigger, because at that time, they were still doing what was called portal tenancy deals where a long-distance company would buy out all of the opportunity for advertising on the whole service, and it was a very small-minded model. And I learned a lot about putting content into search, I learned a lot about putting transaction opportunities, advertising, and relevance, and understanding customer intent. So, for me, it was an irresistible opportunity to run things that were going to make a big difference in search because I was a dyed-in-the-wool search guy at the time.

And then what made it just really easy was that a lot of my CompuServe friends that did stay were now people within AOL who had built credibility and had been a few years, and some of my favorite people were in positions of influence, so when they needed somebody to run search, luckily, I got the call.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Interesting. Then afterward this period, like when there was search taking over, I guess at the time, probably around like early 2000, of course, a giant like AOL had figured out that search was becoming something that had the potential to kill them in long term. Also, for a little bit of context to the audience, during the mid-’90s, of course, the first browser was released, the most successful browser, Mosaic, and then after Mosaic, of course, there was Netscape which awakened the sleeping giant, which was Microsoft. 

The interesting part is that as Microsoft was so taken by the war against Netscape, which started to bundle in Internet Explorer and the Office package, let’s say it shifted its focus from AOL dominance to Netscape. So, it was like Bill Gates started to really look at the browser war as the main war that he needed to fight in order for Microsoft to survive in long run.

But the interesting part is that this also gave, I guess, a little bit of breath to AOL and the ability to grow, because I think there was also a partnership between AOL and Microsoft during those years, again, because Microsoft was prioritizing on its browser rather than on the online services, which at the time were primarily sold as the primary application, not even on the internet, because as we said, those were really closed walled services that you could access with your membership.

But an interesting question that I would like to look at with you, how did search evolved, especially from the AltaVista standpoint going forward, there were different players. 

How did you see search evolving during those years (the late ’90s going in into the 2000s)?

Gerry Campbell:

Yeah, fascinating times. So, the early search technologies like AltaVista, AltaVista was actually a lab project inside Digital Equipment and there was a computer called the DEC Alpha, which was a mini mainframe if I have that right. It was a large computer but not a room-sized computer, and it had a limited amount of disc storage, limited meaning it was huge for the time, but we didn’t have cloud computing, and it had an incredibly fast multi-threaded processor, so it was a really exciting time for computing.

And so, AltaVista was actually… and somebody will correct me on my history here, but this is how I remember it. AltaVista ran on individual DEC Alpha computers, and so there was load balancing between them… and I don’t want to it too geeky, but the first search engines were technically very, very limited. And the way that played through to user experience was you couldn’t find everything because the web couldn’t be indexed anywhere near the scale as today. 

So, we knew at the time… AltaVista had about 200 million pages in its index, and Google had come up with their cloud infrastructure and the ability to use many, many parallel smaller computers, so they had a truly elastic way to just add more and more. So, when you put a search term into the entry box and it went to Google, they could search for more information and they also had a better crawler, so they could do a better job of pulling a lot of information in.

And then the magic of Google was that they studied, and there was a lot of math and there was a lot of science and in the algorithms, especially in those days, to get the right result that you’re looking for. And that technically it’s called precision at 1, which means, is the result you get when you put a query in the right result, in the first position, second position, and third position. And so it was a mess.

So, early on, there weren’t many pages indexed, it was a little bit slower, although AltaVista was very, very fast. Google came along and broke all of the paradigms around the size of the index, the ability to crawl it, and the ability to rank it, and they truly were breakthrough at the time, and they had a lot of both capital horsepower, but they also had just a lot of technical horsepower. They did a lot of things right. That was the beginning when search actually became more useful. 

And if you remember back to the time, the internet in terms of publishing was exploding, absolutely exploding. All of the newspapers were coming online, everybody had to have their own site, businesses had to have their own sites. There wasn’t really as much of a notion of real-time information, but every company had to have a business card type site where you could just do some basic stuff, and then information like news and all of that just started to grow.

So, searching all of that was a prodigious problem that was limited technically in a lot of different ways from pre-Google to post Google.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Yeah, absolutely, this is a key point. So, as the internet started to grow exponentially, probably there were like two, three years in between where you had a few sites that could be actually also curated. You could have like directory lists or websites until a point in which these directory lists could not be useful anymore because the number of sites had grown so exponentially that it was impossible to keep track of them. So, it was needed something that was very good at it, and so search was extremely important.

Another key point I believe to a remark about that time, going toward the late ’90s is that with the explosion of websites on the internet, there were also the explosions of the first search engines, but the problem is the first search engines were also probably easy to game. I mean, if you were an SEO expert in the late ’90s, probably it was much easier to game a search engine like, let’s say, AltaVista compared to what would come later. 

Actually, as we know, even initially, if I’m not mistaken, also Page and Brin, the founders of Google didn’t think of spam as a key issue for the search engine, instead, they thought more of indexing as a key issue to solve, but they were right at the beginning. 

But then as also Google started to index more and more pages, actually, they realized that spam was a core issue, so they had to devote an entire engineering team, a larger and larger engineering team as the web was scaling to actually solving the problem of spam, and this is still actually an unsolved problem today.

Gerry Campbell:

Yeah, it is.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

And I think a third aspect is extremely important, it’s about the advertising model that Google managed to actually build up because it’s important to also mark that initially when Google launched, it was an academic project out of Stanford, and initially, the Google founders actually were very skeptical about advertising. 

Indeed, there is an interesting account in various books where, if I remember well, there is also a meeting between Bill Gross, the founder of GoTo.com, which was one of the early search engines, which later on, I think, turned into Overture. 

And actually, the model of GoTo was very smart because they used a CPC model where an advertiser could actually be featured on top of the search results by simply paying more. So, it was simply a bidding auction mechanism. 

But the main drawback of goto.com is that, of course, the fact that it primarily listed paid results without mixing them up with organic results was an issue, and another issue is that also when Google started to feature paid results, the score that took into account various metrics, not just how much money the brand was pouring into the advertising machine.

So, I think those are critical points and that’s how, pretty much, Brin and Page had to turn the company around because the company, of course, had a lot of servers expenses, so either they were figuring out a business model for the company, how they had to close things out because it was burning a lot of cash, and we’re talking about the early years, because then the Google of the early 2000s would become really a cash machine, one of most profitable business that we still know today.

Gerry Campbell:

It’s hard to imagine Google not being profitable, right?

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Yeah. Yeah, it’s very hard. But sometimes you hear also the stories of some people recounting, “Google has been always profitable.” 

Yes and no. I mean, in the early years when it was still evolving as a company, it was burning a lot of cash just because it was trying to figure out an advertising model that could work for its platform, how to mix paid and organic and make it still relevant for users. 

This was the main angle of Google as a company. And as they figured this out with Google AdWords first, and then by mixing this up with AdSense in 2003, and 2004, that’s how the advertising machine exploded. But it’s also important to look at a little bit the evolution of the search at the time.

How did we get to the Google-AOL deal? What was the context there? How did that happen?

Gerry Campbell:

Sure. Yeah, it is pretty fun. And I want to retrace a little bit of what you said because it’s really important. Some of the very first ways to monetize search were simple flat-price click engines. So, shopping.com, for instance, charged a dollar a click, and so if you went into the shopping.com product search, you would search for something and you would get a list of products out of our database, and we would link you off to Best Buy or Circuit City to buy it locally or whatever else, but if you wanted to go to one of our partners, you would click and it would be a dollar, right? 

No auction, nothing. And that’s where everything started. GoTo was very smart in what they did, and we competed with them for a little while and then they took a little bit of a turn and went more general than just product search, but they were doing a lot about search term relevance. And so they focused on making sure that the right ad showed up in terms of relevance to the query but they left the gaping hole open of user feedback.

And so, I left AltaVista, did a little startup for a little while, and then went into AOL and was put in charge of the entire machine for search. And it wasn’t a big business at the time, it was about 20 million a year. Our partners, we had Inktomi, which was our natural organic search, and then we had Overture, which was our paid search. And the paid search model at the time was generating some money but I just had this feeling that there was user intent that was left on the table. People needed to see more things.

And simply, when you think about it, you need a massive, massive pool of advertisers if you’re going to start to cover stuff in the tail. So, the notion of the tail came up at that time, and we had always known it because I’d been looking at search metrics and statistics for a long time. But when I got to AOL and we were handling tens and twenties and thirties millions of queries a day, we had a lot of topics to cover because people were searching for things that wouldn’t necessarily be as simple to match to like 27 inches flat-screen TV, which was the kind of search that we would have at the time.

So, what Google did, and this is before we started working with them, what Google did was taken into account… And they did a lot of things in the algorithm, but the one that was most important to me was that they were taking user clicks into account. So, they would shuffle ads around and see which one got the most clicks. And they did a couple of things that were user-friendly that was non-obvious. 

One was the user click input for rankings. The second is they move to a second price auction. So, Overture, if you bid $5 for a term and somebody, the next guy bid two bucks, you would pay five bucks. And the problem was with that, it was very easy to game, the other problem is that if I wanted to get more and more terms as an advertiser, all of my willingness to pay to get sucked upon terms that are in the head, right? I don’t have the chance to expand my queries out because I’m going to post what I’m willing to pay and that’s it.

Google came out with a second-price auction. So, if I bid $5 and the next guy bid $2, I would pay $2.01 and then I could take that budget and allocate it to other terms. And so, the size of Google’s index on the paid search helped, and I’ll tell you about that in a second, and also their second-price auction and their ranking was absolutely superior, and I knew that.

Google had a problem at the time, which was they had some great technology, but Overture was a public company that had already won the game. Very few people that weren’t inside search knew that it could be so much better. So, Google took a risk in approaching us, and there’s a little bit of history here too, which is Omid Kordestani, who was one of the folks at Netscape. 

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Who later one would become Head of Business Development at Google!

Gerry Campbell:


Gerry Campbell:

So, Omid went to Google and had a lot of relationships at AOL. I didn’t know him at the time, got to know him, and they were very patient about saying, “We’re building a better engine and we want to work with you.”

I was resistant, honestly. I, at the time, was like, “We’ve got this Overture and Inktomi thing among other things.” And then here comes the story, right? So, the Overture deal came up for renegotiation, and the way deals worked at the time on search was that the company that monetized your search results page would control the page. So, Overture had control over the search results page, which means that I couldn’t fully run the search engine the way that I wanted to. I had an additional objective, which was… a little bit of context as well. AOL was in the middle of the Time Warner merger and there were hundreds of brands, magazines, online sites for movies, and entertainment, and news and cooking, and everything you can imagine, and I wanted to put that stuff into the AOL search engine. I wanted to make sure that if somebody searched on AOL, I had AOL and Time Warner content there.

So, we had an unworkable situation where Overture wanted to control the search results page… and so essentially, I said, no, and that opened a window for Google to step in. So, they had the technology in place, they didn’t have very many advertisers. In fact, when we talked to Amid and the team over there, they said, “We’re not quite ready. Can we do this in a year?” And when I say I, there was really a we to the whole thing. 

But the answer was, “We have to do this deal now because we’re about to do a three to a four-year deal and we’re going to end up locked up for a while.”

And the thing to note about AOL at the time is it was very clear that AOL users were going out to the web, it was also very clear that they spent a lot of money and clicked a lot of ads. So, through Overture, we had hundreds of thousands of advertisers who were benefiting from being a part of AOL. We were their largest distribution partner at the time. So, for AOL to make a change to a different paid search capability, theoretically would bring hundreds of thousands of advertisers to the new engine that we worked with. 

And so Google wanted to work with us and we were, I think, just a little bit ahead of them, and so the little bit of history there was that they stepped up and we did the deal in 2003, and I restructured or we restructured the deal. I say, I, because I did I actually did the Excel model for it instead of doing some really complicated model that had floors and collars and variable rates of rev share.

One of the things that was really important to me was to keep us aligned over time, so I personally really pressed the idea that we have a flat rev share on dollar one all the way up to a hundred million. And what that did was kept us aligned as partners, and they wanted to grow, they wanted to work with us, access our audience. And I didn’t want to be having to go through an attorney or go through finance every time I wanted to make a change to see if we were going to trip a trigger in an agreement or anything, we were just aligned. And what that did was freed up business teams, product teams to truly be collaborative. So, it all happened very quickly.

We switched over to their organic search first, because that was out in the market, and Inktomi, and I had many great friends at Inktomi, it was a painful thing. And that was a rough thing for that company, but we switched over to the organic search to put Google in, then a couple of months later we launched the paid search. 

And that deal, I like to think it’s a historic deal because two companies that potentially were competitors had years and years and billions of dollars of value created through a really great alignment and by being really… we were all focused on understanding customer intent, and customer intent was absolutely what drove that business. 

That we analyzed queries. We had incredible systems inside AOL to understand what was going on in our query stream, and we shared a lot of that with Google and they shared a lot of the UI stuff. And so we collaborated on what I think was one of the first really highly scalable search results pages.

Over time, we tried things, and we wanted to monetize a little bit heavier but keep customer satisfaction high, and so we put a lot of effort into doing some creative studies around that. So, that was how the switch flipped.

And there were a lot of politics, there were a lot of angry people, there were a lot of sales teams all over the place putting a lot of pressure all the way up my chain to Steve Case, who was chairman at the time. It was a very interesting time, but I knew we were doing the right thing for the user because if we could end up with a situation where the ads were more relevant and covered more of the query stream, we would do better than if we had fewer ads that weren’t as well accepted by users. 

And then the benefit was I also got the chance to feed content in too. And it looked like Google OneBox now. They didn’t have that capability. Since we had the organic and we had the paid search covered, we could put a lot of our effort and our profits back into building a content system that allowed us to, on a query by query basis, publish very relevant results out of our own databases into the search results.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

What a story! That’s an incredible story, and incredible to have actually been there. 

But three points I think I want to emphasize from what you said so far. 

  • I think at the time as search engines were still figuring out a scalable advertising machine, deal-making was extremely important. And you highlighted how, for instance, a single person, like in this case that could be a person in charge of business development at Google, like Omid Kordestani actually played a key role as he moved to Google, and as you said, he had probably good relationships with AOL. And as you said, being featured on AOL at the time made your business, because Google at the time was not yet an advertising platform where you could go and place your bids automatically, it was mostly done through, a lot of it, at least late ’90s, early 2000s, still a lot of the deals were partnership deals. So, this is where Google tried to feature its search box on the main platforms. AOL was the main one. And it’s interesting then… 
  • Also, another point as I was listening to your story is that initially how AOL kept a little bit of a Walled Garden perspective also on search. When you said, as AOL was going through the merge with Time Warner, of course, they wanted also to prioritize a lot on controlling the search results, therefore giving a lot of results that would be based on the content they had within the proprietary network or the network of partners in AOL and Time Warner.
  • And I think a third aspect, which to me it’s extremely important is when there is a turning point. So, when the technology and commercial landscape is changing at scale, there is when there is the opportunity for the new player when it’s way, way better than the existing alternatives to actually break up an existing industry. One example that comes to mind, in this case, is when, for instance, let’s say Steve Jobs managed to break up the music industry, or when, for instance, the same Steve Jobs managed to break up the mobile carrier industry when it handed to them the iPhone, but then it said, “Okay, you subsidize this product to as many people as possible.” And the reason why it was possible to do that is that it was such an interesting product that for the mobile carrier who had little to offer in terms of innovation on the market, it was a key product to have in its portfolio for its base, for its customer base to keep growing and keep being relevant. So, I think those, to me, are three extremely important points.
  • And another one which I would like to just emphasize with you, what happened after the change. So, when you change… I guess, of course, on the side of Overture, this was a tragedy. Like losing the deal with AOL was a huge, huge loss. 

And on the other side, how did it go in terms of the integration? So, how did the deal play out within AOL and Google in the years that happened later?

Gerry Campbell:

Yeah. So, on the Overture side, I found out years later that a friend that I grew up with was one layer back on the legal team when we made the decision to move away from Overture. Actually, when we made that decision, there were hundreds of millions of dollars of market cap destroyed in that company. And I feel bad about my friend, but it was the right thing for the industry.

The relationship was interesting, because looking back, deals at that time, companies when they worked together, it was always business development. It was largely business development, attorneys, and deal-making that made things happen. I started as a product manager, I started thinking about… and these were my earliest projects at CompuServe… I wanted to build things that people loved, and so finding a partner that wasn’t going to send their business development team every time I had a question but somebody that would actually send their product people was critical. 

At the very beginning, it was really a simple relationship, technically. They had an API for natural search, and they had an API for paid search, and we drove the search results page and did all of our magic and included those in the two main sections on the page.

From a technical perspective, our engineers didn’t have to spend much time together. We had service level agreements and all of that stuff, but what that allowed us to do was to have discussions a lot about what search should be. I don’t want to overstate it, it’s not like we were a buddy-buddy, because we were, in a way, competing with them, but we did have opportunities.

Marissa Mayer was running the homepage at the time, and so we got the chance to go and sit with her and talk about, “What do you think the intent is when a user comes to the Google homepage and sees the search entry box?” Because we were working on our own innovations on trying to understand intent so that we could deliver a better experience, and they could see all of our monetizations. 

When we made the decision to go three links at the top and three down the side and move pages around… We had an enormous testbed. So, we had 16 concurrent A/B tests running every day, all the time, and we were moving things around on the page all the time, and they could see all of our data. So, they couldn’t see what was on the page, but they’d be like, “Wow, what did you do because this kind of queries really blew up?” And so we’d have that discussion. We were pretty open about it.

And this is a worthy point to note. There was a point… And I actually ended up in Time Warner investor meetings because investors at the corporate parent level were like, “We should have a search engine, we should own our own search engine.” 

And AOL was the kind of company, it was at the core, a media company, not a hardcore technology company, although there was a lot of great technology there. In fact, I could go into all the incredible things that came out of that period of time, but what it takes to build, grow, feed, and really innovate in search requires such a constitution for investment. 

And AOL, it was a decision that I reinforced every time I got, which was, we have to find people who are very best and companies to work with that are very best at what they do so we can be best at serving AOL customers. And so, that is a big piece of it. Things moved really quickly. 

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Yeah, absolutely. I think usually, I try to take some key points from what you said, which made me think a lot as we went through the story.

  • But I think you said a key point, which is about Web 1.0 when again, we moved from deals to scalable platforms, it was really the time where product development became a king. So, we went from a time when you needed the business development team. And of course today also, the business development team is very important at the enterprise level, but the key point is really the internet changed a lot from media to technology and therefore from an approach as a platform during the late ’90s, early 2000. And as you said, it’s very important to emphasize that as the many companies on the internet changed the playbook, they understood they needed to become scalable machines and therefore product development, so coordinating engineering team on the UX and UI and understanding how to make the user experience as good as possible became the most important aspect. Before, as we said, deal-making was very, very important.
  • And it’s interesting to me how also, as you highlighted one, probably in hindsight, it’s always easy, but also the lack of transition from a media company to a tech company was something that slowed down AOL. And of course, there are always cycles in history, for instance, when technology becomes a commodity, then you need to become a media company. When I say this, I think about, for instance, Netflix, when Netflix launched it was primarily a platform hosting other people’s content. But starting in 2013 going forward, it needed to become a media company and invest in its own content because technology was becoming a commodity in the streaming wars!. So, there are areas in which being a media company is an advantage and other areas in which being a technology company is an advantage. At the time, I think being a technology company was a key advantage.
  • And another point is that Google, from the deal, took probably one of the most important aspects which was key to keep scaling its product, but also to build up its advertising machine was probably. It was the access to the data or to experiments that AOL was doing at scale because the scale of AOL was many times over still at the time of Google of the early years. So, those are extremely important points.
  • And then after that, really, let’s say the war, initially, Google stole, let’s say, the deal from Overture, and that was a huge deal. And then, of course, Google started to figure out the advertising machine. And in early 2000, it started to become a tech giant. But later during like 2004, 2005, there was a war then between Microsoft and Google on who was going to take over AOL. My understanding is going toward the year 2004, there was a deal that Google wanted to secure instead of Microsoft. 

Do you remember how it went in that deal (Google vs. Microsoft to secure AOL distribution)?

Gerry Campbell:

I do. I do. It was the craziest thing. So, we were in New York at the Time Warner building. So, the first time we did the deal with Google, it was a small team of a few of us and it was just our day jobs to do that stuff. By the time we launched Google’s paid search in 2003 and the revenues just started to skyrocket, and we had warrants in Google as well, it got the attention, not just on a deal-making level, but it got the attention of everybody throughout the company, that AOL had a massive asset in this traffic that could be monetized through search.

So, the first time we did the deal was a few of us worked really hard. It was two product managers, me… and I say product managers… it was people like me, one guy was running Netscape and some of the other brands, and then I was running the AOL brands, and then we had an attorney and a business development person. And the four of us did the deal the first time, and not until we got towards the end of the deal did it really bubble up to the executives. If you’ve worked in the corporate world you know that if what you’re working on bubbles up, it’s a blessing and a curse.

So, the second time we did the deal, it actually went all the way up to the Time Warner level, and so that Microsoft-Google search deal ended up in a really, really funny thing. So, there were conference rooms at either end of the floor. The Microsoft guys were in one end and the Google guys were in the other end, and we were running back and forth going term by term, seeing who would give us the best deal. 

And it was like one of those things out of a sitcom on three companies where people are running all over the house, pretending they don’t see each other and trying to hide, and two dates going on at the same time. It was crazy. But ultimately, the Microsoft style and their approach was very different. It wasn’t Bing at the time, it was pre-Bing… I think maybe it was Bing. I think it was something else though. It doesn’t matter. And on one side, there were a lot of influences, and I’ll tell you about my influence on it.

I had faith in Google’s ability to deliver a great experience for AOL customers, and that, to me, was the core of the business. We flipped from being a push-based advertising business to being a customer pull-based advertising business. And the things that I had to deal with in terms of running the search engine inside of AOL was that we had a company that was like, “Just go close a deal, go sell a deal, go get M&Ms in here and we’ll put them all over the search results page.” 

And I actually almost got fired a couple of times because I was so dedicated to making sure that we kept the user experience as the primary focus, I was willing to put my job on it because I couldn’t deliver the revenues that we needed if we ended up bastardizing or changing the search results environment.

And so, at one end of the hall, we had a company that was a close partner. There were tensions, but they were a close partner and I knew that the user experience would be maintainable and manageable. And then we had Microsoft at the other end, which was a little bit more old school at the time, which was, they were just going to come in and do a deal that worked for them economically, and there were a lot of unknowns about whether that would be the best experience for users. 

So, I will not say that I had the ultimate say in it, in fact, I had a small piece of the ultimate say in which deal we did, but the piece that I had was really influencing, going for the best user experience so that we could build a sustainable business. And again, I go back to really simple deals, cuts of revenue that’s a straight line, X percent for the first dollar, X percent for the last dollar. And the deal started to look far more complicated at the two ends of the hall. So, history was made. Google got the renewal.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

So, some key lesson is that it doesn’t matter how much business development power you have. If you have a product like Google had at the time, then it becomes much easier to sit at the table. And then, of course, I guess also at the time, they had a lot of resources as well on the table, so it wasn’t more… Like Microsoft was still much bigger, but then it was possible for Google to compete on deal-making, when instead on the previous years, when they tried to compete with Overture, it was, I guess, way more complex for Google.

And how was the feeling at the time? Because of course, if you’re, let’s say, cutting the deal with the company that a few years before was the same company that, thanks to your deal actually, turned things around because Google was featured on AOL, as you said, the user traffic they got was huge. 

And therefore, how was the feeling at the time? Did you feel AOL was going toward, unfortunately, to an end, and how did you feel about the fact that Google now was the king, let’s say, of that era?

Gerry Campbell:

Yeah. I would say if it were a single dimension and say there’s a story you could tell that says AOL was a Walled Garden. We poked a whole new Walled Garden and everybody left. That’s a story that could be told. It’s not what happened. What happened was that users became more sophisticated and expected more and more. The nature of the partnership was always a co-opetition partnership. We knew that we were going to have to compete with everybody in the space for users.

And I want to go back to a little bit of the feeling of the time. I had friends, early days, friends at Lycos, I had friends at Microsoft and we would go to conferences and sit on stage and talk together, and it was always very respectful and there was always a lot of knowledge of what everybody else was doing. 

The ways that companies were navigating at the time, it looked in the media like a war, it looked… like up on stage, sometimes if the questions were right, that we had differing opinions, but that was one of those periods of time where really, the people who were running the experiences, we knew each other, and I will say I respected and had a lot of trust in everybody across the table and around the world.

So, when we did the co-opetition deal with Google, I had been exposed to Google when they started to poach AltaVista engineers way, way, way back, I knew their mission, I knew what they were doing, I knew their trajectory was to organize the world’s information. AOL’s trajectory was very different. AOL was, at the time, we were still in the Time Warner deal. 

We were a media company, a true media company. I don’t want to take away from any of the technology, because, for things like instant messaging, we have an incredible number of search patents that are now held by Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. So, it wasn’t as simple as a, “Oh, we’re competing now and they have more horsepower,” it was that we were going different directions and that that co-opetition really did work. I think that had we had complex deal structures in place, it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did. I’m very proud of the way that we kept the people who mattered aligned, because when we made money, they made money, and that was awesome.

There was an interesting day, and I’ll tell you about it. The day that Google announced Gmail because AOL believed that we kept the user experience and that our mail was the mail that should be. And the day that they announced it, it caused a big buzz. There were a lot of executive questions to me, “What are they doing? Where are they going?” And I think that was the first time that they had least stepped out to challenge the partnership and had gotten strong enough that they were on their own path and could do that. 

And the answer that we had at the time was, “We don’t control them.” We had sold our warrants in the company so we weren’t even really investors anymore, as I recall it, but that wasn’t my responsibility. So, I think there was a notion of co-opetition but there were a couple of rounds that we can see now, looking backward, that hadn’t played out yet.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Wow. Yeah. And it’s very hard to predict what trajectory. As you said, in some context, being a media company is an advantage. It has played out extremely well for AOL for years, and then suddenly Google scaled up very, very quickly.

And when you go from competition to competition, it’s very hard. As you said, when you work on the product development side, all you care about is improving the user experience, understanding what’s the next product actually can improve the user experience of a certain X amount. But on the business development side, and probably on the media side, it’s more interesting to look, “okay, who’s going to be the winner take all?” And eventually, as happened in this case, of course, it was Google.

But what are some key lessons from those days?

Gerry Campbell:

Sure. We’ve identified some of the trends, right? I love the stuff we’ve covered. You asked great questions.

I think a couple of big takeaways for me, over the period of time that I’ve been in the industry, I’ve seen times where you move slowly and times when you move quickly. And so, you usually, it’s driven by innovation and technology that breaks through to the customer experience, right? And so, we can look over and over and over again. And in the times where you move slowly, you optimize. So, we got the AOL search up and running with Google in it and spent three or four years optimizing. 

And it wasn’t about big moves, it wasn’t about lots of new partnerships, it was about taking what we had and really growing it, and there was an enormous amount of value created there.

And then there are times when everything is changing, user behavior is shifting, and when user behavior shifts, it’s time to break through and just pull in and go, right? And that’s the time when different skill sets are required. 

Optimizers, and innovators. And I’m not talking about technology innovators, I’m talking about business model innovators, customer experience innovators. That’s when you shift from looking at the small picture of optimization to the larger picture of trends and vision.

The reason I bring that up is we are in that right now with Web 3. It is one of those times where there’s a technology change that’s making a huge impact. So, my take is, and I’m really excited… a couple of years ago when it was a time to move slowly because the innovations were much smaller, I wouldn’t be having as much fun with this conversation because I’d be looking back going, “Oh, those were the days when we had incredible amounts of opportunity in front of us, and everybody was trying to talk to everybody to figure out what was happening next, and we were building this shared vision.” That, to me, is one of the big takeaways.

That was a point in time when the fundamental model of how people used the internet, from browsing to searching, changed, and it was the time to just do crazy deals and have some vision about where it’s going, adapt really quickly, and recognize that it’s a time that… The way I talk about it is that when things change, there’s a period of time where everything is fluid, and then before you know it, it’s locked in cement. And I’ll give you a quick example.

I was involved with a couple of the companies that Twitter acquired very early on around 2009, and at that point in time, we didn’t know how everything was working. I was involved peripherally in some of the strategies around how Twitter handled the Firehose and all of that, and there were decisions made, everything changed quickly, and boom, the Firehose was shut off, and now that was locked in stone. So, decisions are made very quickly, and then those decisions, you just got to move on, and that’s when you go back to optimizing. 

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

You strike a key point, like cement and then fluid, absolutely agree on that. And right now you’re working on Kryptonomic, so you’re working on a web 3 project, so you see how the same scenario of those early days, and now you see things moving faster in the Web 3 direction, right? I mean more or less, that’s how you see things now.

How is your feeling now about Web 3 and what are you looking at right now which it’s exciting for you?

Gerry Campbell:

Sure. I don’t want to shield for my company, so I won’t talk too much about that, a little bit, but I think where we are in the context of things is that blockchain technology, you can say that there are a lot of coins out there and tokens and people are going to lose money, and you can say that, “NFTs are a little bit weird, and it will never make it to the mass market to buy a silly GIF.” 

But when you look underneath all of that, what’s really changed is our ability to keep records has changed. And so the ledger of a company, profit, loss, where the money comes from and goes to within a company is now being shifted from companies to projects, and that’s enabling an incredible amount of innovation.

So, when you can attach software to the blockchain and you can do things, which is where Ethereum made its first step, the foundation of everything that we know about companies, technology, business, I’m not saying it’s going to change absolutely every aspect of everything, but many things will be fundamentally changed through the notion of the blockchain because money can be programmed to do things, and when money can be programmed to do things, you can program virality, you can program customer usage behaviors into the money and the flows. 

And NFT, okay, great, I’ve got a little pixeled picture of a monkey, but what’s really happening there is items can be attached to an incontrovertible record of who owns that item. That changes the art industry, which is what we’re seeing, it changes the supply chain. There’s just so much changing based on the core of these technologies.

It’s a shame. I talk to people a lot about what’s happening and it’s, “Oh, Bitcoin burns too much energy,” and all of these things that people talk about as being detractors are really expressions of misunderstanding. And those expressions of misunderstanding, if there’s a vision that anybody can put together by looking around at all the information out there about where things are going to change, this is one of those times where people with vision can make stuff happen because, in all of my experience, I’ve only seen a couple of times where the underlying technology has so many ripple effects in what changes. So, that’s what Kryptonomic is. We’re helping companies specifically, and it’ll make sense. We are trying to understand how these technologies can make user experiences better, shopping experiences better, lifetime value better for companies, and that’s it.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Interesting. An important final point, as you said, completely misses the point when you go into an argument about energy consumption. The whole blockchain-based ecosystem has evolved a lot in the last years, now we have many other layers. 

Layer One chains that do many things like Ethereum, from other chains like Solana, Avalanche, and many others. But the main point is that now we have many applications up on top of the blockchain. I also follow that with a lot of interests. 

And the NFTs are very interesting because at least if they are successful at scale, they might actually make the digital ownership similar to physical ownership, something that, for me, I’m a creator on the web, it’s extremely important because it’s very hard to build a business on digital products when there is no ownership of those items, there is no scarcity, so those extremely important aspects.

What is then the most important application that you see now on Web 3? Is there anyone that is your favorite one that you think is going to be a turning point for the future?

Gerry Campbell:

Oh, there’s so much good stuff going on. I love decentralized finance. I’m not a believer that governments will be disrupted and the world will change and we won’t need governments anymore. That’s not what I’m talking about. 

What I do think is that our current world financial systems, and I’m talking banks on down to customers, and then the corporate thing as well, it’s so limited. Although there are lots of different ways to invest money in all kinds of different weird products that people can’t understand, we haven’t really innovated in money in a long time.

I’ll give you an example. I had a Bitcoin, and Bitcoin was trading around $50,000, and I went to a platform called Nexo and I was just curious, “What can I do this Bitcoin?” Well, I dropped it into Nexo., they let me borrow 60% of that Bitcoin at a certain percentage rate, and I connected my bank account, and the whole transaction, I transferred the Bitcoin in and had $30,000 in my bank account in, I think it was like 10 minutes. 

And when you think about the implications of access to money, you have to have the collateral, to begin with, but think about how it changes corporate finance and corporate revolvers, and the ability for a company to take its assets in crypto and invest too, and innovate, you think about the insurance products, all of the things. I am super interested in DeFi from being one of the cutting edges that are going to change things. 

I’m also very interested in how decentralized organizations change things because the notion of software being the thing that is tracked in an economy is really powerful.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Yeah. I’m also very excited about both use cases, and DAOs, for me, it’s a game-changer because you can pretty much have companies at scale without having central departments that at scale are very, very damaging. If I’m thinking about also… especially marketing, distribution, product development, if you can scale them with a decentralized approach, it would be very interesting to see what happens. Of course, we are going to see this process taking years and years before we get to that point.

Gerry Campbell:


Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

So yeah, it was an incredible discussion. I hope we can have a second discussion probably focused just on Web 3 three in the coming weeks as I ramp up the podcast series. So, thanks a lot for joining me for this conversation, Gerry. It was a huge pleasure.

Gerry Campbell:

It was a delight. Thank you very much.

Gennaro [FourWeekMBA]:

Thank you.

Key Highlights

The first internet wave and the first walled gardens

In the first wave of the commercial Internet (1994-1999) the first big tech players and tech giants were walled gardens. Those platforms enabled access to proprietary networks (this wasn’t really the Internet, as those were not open protocols) where users could enjoy a set of online services (emails, news, forums, and later on search). These first tech giants were companies like AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe, and GEnie. Their business model was straightforward, you would pay for a monthly subscription, and enjoy a few hours of access to their proprietary networks. For each additional hour users spent on top of the subscription, they would be charged based on consumption.

The first Internet giant: AOL

As AOL took over the Internet in the first wave of the mid-90s, it also opened up its platform to more and more people, by changing its revenue model. From the subscription and consumption model, AOL had to adapt to the unlimited subscription model where users could enjoy unlimited access to AOL’s proprietary network. With this new model, AOL users’ base grew even further. But it also showed some of its weaknesses, as the platform became unstable, with a wide number of new members. In this time period, the Internet also grew exponentially, favoring the birth of a few tech players. In this period, something very counterintuitive happened. Search, which seemed a feature to offer on top of the Internet, became a killer commercial application!

Browsers wrecked down the walls of the proprietary networks

As the number of sites on the Internet grew exponentially, this opened up the need for a tool that enabled to surf the web to find the most relevant web pages. In parallel to the development of proprietary networks, like AOL, other tools had turned out to be congenial to the Internet. The first was the browser, with a player like Mosaic which in a short time span, became very popular. Yet by 1994, a group of young people that had also worked at Mosaic (among which venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, founder of a16z), also built a browser called Netscape, which by 1995 became very popular. Netscape drew the attention of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, which understood how browsers could become the gatekeepers of the Internet. This spurred a war between Microsoft and Netscape, which culminated in Microsoft’s release of Internet Explorer, bundled in its Microsoft Office products. Thus, Microsoft leveraged its position in the market, to quickly gain market shares, against Netscape. This drew the attention of the regulators who called Microsoft for abusing its dominating position. This led to the parallel development of another commercial killer application: search.

Search turns out as a commercial killer application

As the Browsers’ War went on, search became the most important application of the Internet, enabling users to surface the growing numbers of pages on the Web, which was growing at an untamable pace. Search, therefore, was essential. However, the first search engines, while useful, they were still too much focused on paid placements, and also much easier to game, by webmasters who could easily have their pages show up as relevant, even if not. This paved the way for new players. One epitome of that was GoTo.com, created by the legendary Bill Gross. GoTo.com not only mixed paid results as if they were organic results.

It enabled everyone to bid and compete on its advertising platform. Thus, making the paid search a primary feature. While this model, called CPC was revolutionary, it was also skewed substantially toward paid vs organic results. In that period, toward the end of the 1990s, another player had developed a search engine able to index, and rank the growing mole of web pages. This was first called Backrub, out of a P.h.d. project at Stanford. And later it was called Google! Google picked up quickly, becoming de facto the most popular search engine at the time. Its ability stood in enabling websites to rank organically, without having to pay. Initially, Google’s founders were quite skeptical of the advertising model for search engines, as they thought this would be intrinsically biased toward paid ads, thus not giving relevant results. Yet, over time they set to change that. They, therefore, started to build an advertising machine, able to also rank paid results based on various factors. Thus, Google borrowed from the GoTo.com CPC model, and it improved on it. This formula turned out to be extremely powerful.

The Google’s deal that made it the tech giant we know today

While Google’s user base was scaling quickly in its early years. Its advertising machine would be built later on (2001-2004). Thus, in the early years, Google had to rely on business development deals to further scale-up, strengthen its position, and become the market leader. Among the most important deals Google sealed at the time, there was the deal with AOL. Indeed, AOL saw search as a feature within its proprietary network, thus featuring a search engine that enabled users to surf the web. Initially, GoTo.com (later called Overture) had a deal with AOL to be featured as the main search engine. Yet as this contract expired by the late 90s, Google jumped on it, managing to get the deal with AOL, in place of Overture! This deal was a very important one, which put Google on a further growth trajectory.

Proprietary networks got stuck in their game while users’ sophistication grew

Over the years and going into the early 2000s, proprietary networks had become less and less relevant, as more Internet/Web players had spurred up. From e-commerce to search, platforms like AOL had lost traction. In that scenario, Google became the new King in town.

The new King in town is Google

From then on Google became the new dominant player of the Internet. From wrecking the walls of closed proprietary networks. Over the years (the 2010s – present) Google, then become Alphabet turned into a sort of Walled Garden.

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