Spark

Search engines try to rival Google by offering fewer ads, more privacy

A new crop of search engines is taking a stab at the online search market, promising to provide an engine with more customizable options, fewer ads and more consideration for users' privacy.

Sites like Neeva, You.com tout better privacy and better results than the current king of search

A man looks something up on his smartphone. Online search has become ad-filled and largely ruled by one giant. Is there a future of search that gets us back to information? (ZoFot/Shutterstock)

The name Google has become so synonymous with online search that it's become a verb. Want to find out something? Google it.

But a new crop of search engines is taking a stab at the online search market, promising to provide an engine with more customizable options, fewer ads and more consideration for users' privacy.

While there's little prospect of any of these upstarts becoming the next No. 1 any time soon, a handful have found a small but dedicated audience looking for an alternative to the internet that Google controls.

One of the newest players is Neeva, co-founded by Sridhar Ramaswamy, who spent years working as a senior vice president of advertising at Google.

"The core experience is that of going back to the roots of just being able to find the stuff you want, get on with your life and have this search engine be like a quiet ally in the background, as opposed to the cacophony of the modern internet," he told Spark host Nora Young.

A promotional image from Neeva's website, comparing search results from Google, left, and Neeva, right. Many search results on Google are front-loaded with advertisements that may not relate to your original search. Neeva claims its ad-free searches are always geared towards what you're looking for. (CBC)

Ramaswamy left the company in 2017, shortly after reports that advertisers like Cadbury and Diageo found that their ads were being served on videos of scantily clad children on Google's video platform YouTube.

The controversy convinced Ramaswamy to look for a better way to approach internet search that wouldn't fall to similar ethical conflicts.

He bills Neeva as an ad-free, private search engine. Results won't include advertisements, and the company says any information it does collect from users isn't shared with third parties.

That ad-free experience does come with a cost, however: a subscription fee of $5 US per month, after a three-month trial period.

Sridhar Ramaswamy, the former senior vice-president of ads at Google, thinks going ad-free — and paying for it — is a better way to search. (Greylock)

Ramaswamy argues that no search engine is truly free, as users end up paying with all the advertisements and affiliate links clogging up search results, making it harder to find the things they actually want.

You can see that whenever you search for video content on Google, according to tech journalist and author Clive Thompson: most if not all results will be from YouTube.

"Whereas if I do the same search on [Microsoft's] Bing, I get stuff from all over the place like different video sites or stuff that's just hosted at a news organization," he told Young, though he noted that Bing's non-video search results aren't always as accurate as Google's.

Neeva does collect "a good amount of data" from its users, according to a review by tech site TechRadar.

According to Neeva's privacy policy, it collects information provided by the user, such as the email address you use to create your account on the site, and other commonly collected data like your IP address and what kind of computer software you're using.

Google does offer some tools for users to control how much data the company keeps from its searches. One option, introduced in 2019, allows users to automatically delete all search history after three to 18 months on desktop, and as little as 15 minutes on mobile.

In 2020, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that its auto-delete option for search, location history and voice commands will be on by default for new users. Existing users, however, will still have to change those settings manually if they want.

Privacy vs. customization

Another new search engine, You.com, takes a different approach by literally changing how you look at search results.

Rather than a mostly-linear list of results sorted in order of relevance or accuracy, You.com displays search results in a grid-like format.

You.com displays search results in a grid format, instead of a linear ranked list. (CBC)

It also lets users "upvote" and "downvote" individual results, directly affecting their rankings in future searches.

That added flexibility comes at the cost of simplicity, though; The Verge's Adi Robertson said its layout can appear "overwhelming and sort of cluttered" to anyone used to Google's linear approach.

Co-founder Richard Socher said, however, that he found younger users used to other social media platforms like Instagram or TikTok, which display content in tiles both vertically and horizontally, were able to quickly acclimate themselves to You.com's unique layout.

Richard Socher, co-founder of the new search engine You.com. (Eric Millette)

Like Neeva and other search engine startups, You.com doesn't track users or "force privacy-invading targeted ads" on them, according to Socher. It also lets users switch between a "private, personalized mode" or turn off all tracking whatsoever.

"Our hunch is that most people would want about five to 10 per cent of their searches to be extremely private, but for a large majority of the other searches, they actually prefer some customization," Socher said.

Taking on Google

While the flurry of newcomers and upstarts may seem promising, can any of them actually unseat Google's supremacy?

"The short answer is probably not, no," said Thompson.

According to Ars Technica, Google's market share for search is over 90 per cent, while the next largest competitor, Bing, holds a scant 2.48 per cent.

"If something like Microsoft with Bing can't knock Google off the top perch, then I think the smaller ones don't have a great chance of becoming 80 per cent of all search. But I think they could definitely find an audience for what they're doing," said Thompson.

The Google logo is displayed at the entrance to the technology company's offices in Toronto. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Ramaswamy is under no illusions of unseating his former employer any time soon. He says in the few months since release, Neeva has over 50,000 members. He'll consider it a success if he can reach one million users in North America.

"People make the mistake of comparing a startup to a Google. They're like, 'Are you really going to build a trillion dollar company?'" he said.

"You need to have humbler goals when you're a startup."

Thompson pointed to DuckDuckGo — in his words, "this funny little startup search engine" — as a surprising success.

It launched in 2008, positioning itself as an adversary to "Big Data" companies like Facebook and Twitter, which relied on the data they collect from users to provide customized experiences but also generate considerable ad revenue.

Today, users log tens of millions of searches on DuckDuckGo a day, and the Philadelphia-based company employs more than 140 people.

"It's a really interesting, positive story," said Thompson. "You're not going to knock Google off the top perch, but you're going to do pretty well."

Tech journalist Clive Thompson has written about the current state and possible future of search. (Liz/clivethompson.net)
 

What is the future of search?

One reason why it will be difficult for new companies to supplant Google as the default search engine is that many don't even know they're using it, says Ramaswamy.

"Most people don't even realize that they are searching. They just sort of do it instinctively," he said.

Search engines even show up in places where we don't know we're using them, said Thompson.

One form of that is voice assistants, where we bark questions like "What time is it?" or "What's the temperature?" at a smart speaker sitting on the kitchen counter.

However complex the future of searching online may become, Thompson isn't terribly optimistic that the next decade will see Google reduced to half of search, with the other half as "this wonderful garden of different options."

So don't expect people describing searching online as "Googling it" to go out of vogue any time soon.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Samraweet Yohannes and Adam Killick.

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