Innovation Monitor: Neeva, DuckDuckGo and the Future of Search
Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.
Search is one of those things that is so deeply ingrained in how we perceive and process the world, it sometimes feels like second nature.
Today, Google’s marketshare of search is estimated to be 92.18% of all search traffic, and ~87% of all searches in the US. Bing is in 2nd place with 2.27%. But not so long ago, search was a competitive, exploratory landscape to make sense of the world wide web, and surface that ‘perfect result.’ Many of our readers may remember… Yahoo, Altavista, Ask Jeeves.
Privacy, ethical, and societal concerns have become more prominent and part of public discourse over the last decade, raising urgent questions. Is there a better way beyond personalized, optimized, and targeted content? How do we break the ad-model? What is the “right answer” for a search query is a loaded question, and one we should collectively spend more time debating. There’s a growing momentum to redefine how search works and what it means.
I use DuckDuckGo as my regular search engine, and recently read up about Neeva, the new subscription-based search engine startup from Sridhar Ramaswamy, the ex-VP in charge of building Google’s legendary ads business.
In this week’s edition we’ll cover how DuckDuckGo has been challenging Google as a privacy-focused search engine for years, and how Neeva is trying to change the search landscape.
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Erica Matsumoto A Customized, Compartmentalized View As I was writing this newsletter, two videos came to mind. First was Obama speaking to David Letterman a few years back about the filter bubble problem:
“Somebody took a liberal, a conservative and quote-unquote a moderate and sent them on a Google search. Egypt — type it in. For the conservative, it came up ‘Muslim Brotherhood,’ and for the liberal it came up ‘Tahrir Square’ [the site of mass public protests in Cairo] and for the moderate it came up ‘Vacation Spots on the Nile.’ … Whatever your biases were, that’s where you were being sent.” — Barack Obama
The other is probably one of the greatest technology ads of all time — the Parisian Love ad from Google back in 2009. I still marvel at how emotional a connection this ad drew to such a dry, technical thing like search queries, but it also reminded me of how perhaps naively optimistic we were about these technologies back then:
DuckDuckGo DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg recently said that ads are a “practical necessity.”
“If you want the most impact to help the most people with privacy, you have to be free, because Google will be free forever.”
The 2008-founded privacy-friendly search engine pointed to its App Store privacy labels as a reminder of how different they are from Google:
There’s definitely demand: the $900M company hit 30M daily searches in the US, with estimated revenue around $25M. As Wired pointed out in their DuckDuckGo dive, tech companies don’t have to be creepy to make money.
And they’re not alone. Startpage is another private, tracking-free, search engine to try. Neeva As you can imagine, after 17 years inside Google Ramaswamy grew disillusioned with its ad business. It’s oddly fitting that the person who helped build today’s online ad duopoly should be the one to challenge it. (Vivek Raghunathan — ex-VP of Monetization at YouTube — is also a co-founder.)
Armed with some $77M in funding, Ramaswamy is going up against a giant that’s made over $30B in search ad sales in Q1 2021 alone, and where the ads team dwarfs the size of the search team.
In a recent interview with Alex Kantrowitz, Ramaswamy noted that Google’s algorithm is geared towards showing ads… an inherent conflict of interest for a search engine that tries to show you relevant results. (One common example: searching for a brand and then getting ad results for competitors who paid to be featured for that brand’s keywords.)
So, can a transcription model really challenge a “free” experience like Google? Ramaswamy points to some historical examples:
“If you look at previous cases of what… disrupted [large companies it’s] typically a subscription play. What did HBO do to Time Warner? What did Netflix do to ad-supported television? What did Amazon Prime do to traditional e-commerce? The ads model has always gotten disrupted.”
A search engine that eliminates user tracking and ads might not be enought to convince the masses to pay $5-$10 per month. There has to be something else.
According to Reuters, Neeva plans to share at least 20% of its sales with content partners like Quora and Medium based on impression and “unique value.” The “you get free exposure so there’s no need for remuneration” model is getting a bit old, especially with Google’s outsize returns. Users will also be able to personalize what news sources they see.
Ramaswamy has another thing going in Neeva’s favor — antitrust cases against tech giants are ramping up. In a recent Fast Company piece, he noted that…
“What the government is doing in the DOJ case is saying “we accept that Google search is a natural monopoly, but given that it is a natural monopoly, we think it is illegal for them to have these distribution agreements in which they get set as the default and therefore the vast majority of even potential competitors stand no chance.”
Ads and privacy don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Just look at the bastion of privacy-friendly search — DuckDuckGo. ( This Week in Business History
June 3, 1983:
Hacking and cybersecurity are, unfortunately, dominating headlines as we’ve seen ransomware attacks on everything from our oil pipelines to our meat supply chain in the past few weeks alone. 38 years ago this week the idea of computer hacking made its way into our pop culture with the release of the movie WarGames. A young gamer, played Matthew Broderick, accidentally breaks into a military supercomputer, and activates the nation’s nuclear arsenal against the Soviet Union.
The film was a seminal moment for computers and culture, as it was, as described by WIRED, The Film That Turned Geeks and Phreaks Into Stars, as introduced the ideas of cybersecurity and coding to a much wider audience, just as personal computers were being introduced to the world. One fun fact was the film was based on real-life hackers, including John “Captain Crunch” Draper and David Lewis.