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Startup search engines are trying to take on Google



A new series of search engine launches that position themselves as potential competitors to Google, hopes that increasing regulatory pressure will finally reverse two decades of search giant dominance.

Recent challenges include Neeva, launched by two former Google executives, and You.com, founded by Salesforce.com’s former chief researcher, as well as Mojeek, a UK-based startup with growing ambitions to build its own index on billions of websites.

Although the odds of success are long, everyone sees a different opportunity for a new approach to Google’s well-known list of links and results, which has only developed gradually in recent years.

They also hope that a number of recent US antitrust cases against Google at both the state and federal levels could result in the opening of the field.

“In many ways, it̵

7;s surprising, given the size of an industry search, that it has not been thoroughly thought through,” said Richard Socher, CEO of You.com, who left Salesforce’s artificial intelligence research team in July.

Google’s share of the global search market has held more than 90 percent for most of the last decade. Today, it is close to its full-time highs of more than 92 percent, according to Statcounter, which tracks online activity, followed by Bing at 2.9 percent and Yahoo at 1.5 percent.

Still, longtime Google competitors like DuckDuckGo are making slow but steady gains. According to Statcounter, DuckDuckGo’s market share has grown from 0.3 percent to 1.9 percent in North America over the past five years.

In December, Apple added Berlin-based Ecosia, a non-profit organization that invests most of its revenue in planting trees, as one of the built-in search capabilities available to Safari browser users – the first new addition to the list of Google options since DuckDuckGo in 2014.

“It is the fruit of many years of work,” said Christian Kroll, who founded Ecosia in 2009. “We initially took a lot of time to develop the root system and now the plant is growing.”

Long odds

The painstaking process shows the long way ahead for You.com and Neeva, despite their prominent founders.

You.com is funded by Marc Benioff, Salesforce’s founder and CEO, and Jim Breyer, a venture capitalist and early Facebook supporter. It turns out to be a “reliable search engine that summarizes the web for you”. Mr Socher is betting that advances in AI can be used to search in more new ways than Google has yet tried.

“I want to see more trust, more facts and to some extent more friendliness on the internet,” he said. “These three values ​​are the cornerstones for us to create a new search engine that is more private, more reliable and more convenient in some ways.”

You.com remains in private testing for now, and Mr Socher has not revealed how it plans to make money, although he does not rule out showing ads.

The rival startup Neeva’s most radical departure from Google Playbook is that it charges a subscription, promising fewer ads and greater privacy.

Bill Coughran, a former Google chief and now a Neeva investor in venture capital firm Sequoia, sees his former employer’s dependence on advertising as his greatest vulnerability. “The biggest problem is that you start seeing more and more ads, and it becomes more complicated for the user to understand what is advertising and what is not,” he said.

Neeva, which has raised $ 37.5 million in funding, also combines results from user emails and other personal online information with what they hope will be higher online results in specific niches, such as product searches.

“We envision a search engine very differently,” said Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s former advertising manager and co-founder of Neeva.

The two new ventures have emerged this year as Google faces a spate of government complaints, including two state-led antitrust lawsuits and a federal lawsuit in the United States, over what critics like Yelp claim is monopolistic behavior.

Its potential rivals hope it can create new opportunities, not just by distracting Google with lawsuits or limiting the ability to launch new products.

“For us, I think antitrust will be useful,” Socher said. “It depends on how it’s done.” But he added: “I do not think antitrust will create happy users and customers – in the end you have to create a wonderful experience.”

Several future Google rivals have tried and failed to do so in the last 10 years. Founded by two former Google engineers, Cuil raised $ 33 million and built its own index of more than 120 billion pages. But it was shut down in 2010 after a little more than two years in operation, after users complained about the quality of the results.

“Now with Google regulators overseeing Google, I hope that unfair practices will disappear and that will help competition,” Kroll said. “If you are a small search engine, it is very difficult to access technology, to gain visibility, to get into the very rare tracks of browsers.”

Winning these standard search options often comes at a price, such as sharing advertising revenue, although Mr Kroll declined to comment on his new deal with Apple, which came after a year of discussions.

Another competitor

Apple seems to be building its own alternative to Google, increasing its web crawling activity and dealing with more issues 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 his own index, to become truly independent.

“We’re the only real search engine that does not track you,” said Colin Hayhurst, Mojeek’s CEO.

With £ 2.3 million in funding, mostly from a single investor, Mojeek’s team of seven has compiled and sorted an index of 3.6 billion pages. It hopes to reach 6 billion by the end of 2021, even though it is far from Google’s hundreds of billions.

Hayhurst suggested that other search engines that claimed to offer greater privacy were still sending some data back to Bing. “Most of the search engines are not really engines – they are chassis,” he said. “You could say they’re peasants in the Google-Microsoft war.”

So far, regulators’ attempts to reward the search market have struggled. The Android election auction, which was imposed by the European Commission in 2019 after it fined Google $ 5 billion for imposing illegal restrictions on smartphone makers, has not yet had much of an impact, according to Michael Ostrovsky, a professor at Stanford University.

His recent article on the Google-driven process, which presents new Android users with a variety of search options, found errors in the way the auction was designed. It tends to favor obscure companies that are most aggressive in user revenue generation, he found, rather than names like DuckDuckGo or Ecosia that users recognize and therefore may be more likely to choose instead of Google.

“It is clear that the auction as it is today does not achieve the goals,” he said. “What’s important is not so much specific regulation, but knowing that regulators are out there watching.”


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