Challengers such as Neeva bet on alternative approaches as tech giant faces regulatory scrutiny
A new batch of search engine start-ups positioning themselves as potential rivals to Google is hoping that growing regulatory pressure will finally reverse two decades of the search giant’s dominance. The latest challengers include Neeva, launched by two former Google executives, and You.com, founded by Salesforce.com’s former chief scientist, as well as Mojeek, a UK-based start-up with growing ambitions to build its own index of billions of web pages.
Though their odds of success are long, each sees a different opportunity for a new approach to Google’s familiar list of links and results, which has evolved only incrementally in recent years. They also hope that a string of recent US antitrust cases against Google at both the state and federal levels may result in an opening up of the field.
“In many ways it’s surprising, given how large of an industry search is, that it hasn’t been fundamentally rethought,” said Richard Socher, You.com’s chief executive, who left Salesforce’s artificial intelligence research team in July. Google’s share of the global search market has held at more than 90 per cent for most of the past decade. Today, it remains close to its all-time highs of more than 92 per cent, according to Statcounter, which tracks web activity, followed by Bing on 2.9 per cent and Yahoo at 1.5 per cent.
Nevertheless, longstanding Google competitors such as DuckDuckGo are making slow but steady gains. According to Statcounter, DuckDuckGo’s market share has grown from 0.3 per cent to 1.9 per cent in North America in the past five years. In December, Apple added Berlin-based Ecosia, a non-profit that invests most of its income in planting trees, as one of the inbuilt search options available to users of its Safari browser — the first new addition to its list of Google alternatives since DuckDuckGo in 2014.
“That is the fruit of a lot of years of work,” said Christian Kroll, who founded Ecosia in 2009. “We basically took a lot of time to develop the root system and now the plant is growing.”
That painstaking process shows the long road ahead for You.com and Neeva, despite their prominent founders. You.com is funded by Marc Benioff, Salesforce’s founder and chief executive, and Jim Breyer, a venture capitalist and early Facebook backer. It pitches itself as a “trusted search engine that summarises the web for you”. Mr Socher is betting that advances in AI can be applied to search in more novel ways than Google has yet attempted.
“I want to see more trust, more facts and to some degree more kindness on the internet,” he said. “Those three values are the cornerstones for us to create a new search engine that is more private, more trusted and more convenient in some ways.” You.com remains in private testing for now and Mr Socher has not disclosed how it plans to make money, though he does not rule out showing advertisements.
Its rival start-up Neeva’s most radical departure from the Google playbook is that it charges a subscription, promising fewer ads and greater privacy. Bill Coughran, a former Google executive and now Neeva investor at venture capital firm Sequoia, sees his former employer’s reliance on ads as its greatest vulnerability. “The biggest issue is you start to see more and more ads, and it is becoming more complex for the user to understand what is advertising and what is not,” he said.
Neeva, which has raised $37.5m in funding, also combines results from a user’s emails and other personal online information with what it hopes will be higher-quality web results in specific niches, such as product search. “We envision a search engine very differently,” said Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s former head of advertising and co-founder of Neeva.
The two new ventures have emerged this year as Google faces a barrage of regulatory complaints, including two state-led antitrust lawsuits and a federal case in the US, about what critics such as Yelp allege is monopolistic behaviour. Its would-be rivals hope that could create new opportunities, if only by distracting Google with legal cases or constraining its ability to launch new products.
“For us, antitrust I think will be helpful,” said Mr Socher. “It depends how it is executed.” But he added: “I don’t think antitrust is going to create happy users and customers — ultimately, you have to create an amazing experience.” Several would-be Google rivals have tried and failed to do that over the past 10 years. Cuil, which was founded by two former Google engineers, raised $33m and built its own index of more than 120bn pages. But it shut down in 2010 after little more than two years in operation, after users complained about the quality of its results.
“Now with Google being watched more closely by regulators, I hope the unfair practices will go away and that will help competition,” said Mr Kroll. “If you are a small search engine, it’s really difficult to get access to technology, to get visibility, to get into those very rare slots in the browsers.” Winning those default search slots often comes at a price, such as sharing ad revenues, though Mr Kroll declined to comment on its new deal with Apple, which came after a year of discussions.
Apple itself appears to be building up its own alternative to Google, increasing its web-crawling activity and handling more queries from the iPhone’s home screen through its own search systems. Most of Google’s competitors, including Neeva, DuckDuckGo and Ecosia, license their web index from Microsoft’s Bing. But Mojeek wants to build its own index, to become truly independent.
“We are the only real search engine which doesn’t track you,” said Colin Hayhurst, Mojeek’s chief executive. With £2.3m in funding, most from a single investor, Mojeek’s team of seven staff has gathered and sorted an index of 3.6bn pages. It hopes to reach 6bn by the end of 2021, though that is a far cry from Google’s hundreds of billions.
Mr Hayhurst suggested other search engines that claimed to offer greater privacy still send some data back to Bing. “Most of the search engines aren’t really engines — they are chassis,” he said. “You could say they are pawns in the Google-Microsoft war.” So far, regulators’ attempts to prise open the search market have struggled. The Android “choice screen” auction, imposed by the European Commission in 2019 after it fined Google $5bn for imposing illegal restrictions on smartphone makers, has not yet made much impact, according to Michael Ostrovsky, a professor at Stanford University.
His recent paper on the Google-run process, which presents new Android users with a choice of search alternatives, found flaws in the way the auction was designed. It tends to favour obscure companies who are most aggressive in their user monetisation, he found, rather than names such as DuckDuckGo or Ecosia that users recognise and might therefore be more likely to choose instead of Google. “It’s clear that the auction as currently designed is not achieving its objectives,” he said. “What is important is not so much specific regulation but knowing that regulators are out there and paying attention.”