Sunday, April 18, 2021

Search engine start-ups try to take over Google

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A new batch of search engine start-ups positioning themselves as potential rivals to Google are hoping that mounting regulatory pressure will finally reverse two decades of the search giant’s dominance.

The latest challengers include Never will, launched by two former Google executives, and You.com, founded by the former chief scientist of Salesforce.com, as well as Mojeek, a UK-based start-up with growing ambitions to build its own index of billions of web pages.

While their chances of success are long, each sees a different opportunity for a new take on Google’s familiar list of links and results, which has only evolved gradually in recent years.

They are also hoping that a series of recent US antitrust cases against Google at the national and federal levels could open the field.

“In many ways, it’s surprising, given the breadth of research in the industry, that it hasn’t been fundamentally redesigned,” said Richard Socher, CEO of You.com, who has left Salesforce Artificial Intelligence Research Team in July.

Google’s share of the global search market has held steady at over 90% for most of the past decade. Today, it remains close to its historic highs of over 92%, according to Statcounter, which tracks web activity, followed by Bing on 2.9 percent and Yahoo on 1.5 percent.

However, long-standing Google competitors such as DuckDuckGo are making slow but steady gains. According to Statcounter, DuckDuckGo’s market share has grown from 0.3% to 1.9% in North America over the past five years.

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

“It’s the result of many years of work,” said Christian Kroll, who founded Ecosia in 2009. “We basically took a long time to develop the root system and now the plant is growing.

Long odds

This painstaking process shows the long way to go for You.com and Neeva, despite their distinguished founders.

You.com is funded by Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce, and Jim Breyer, a venture capitalist and one of Facebook’s first funders. It promotes itself as a “trusted search engine that sums up the web for you”. Mr Socher is betting that advances in AI can be applied to search in more innovative ways than Google has yet attempted.

“I want to see more trust, more facts and to some extent more cuteness 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 disclosed how he plans to make money, although he is not ruling out showing ads.

The most radical departure of its rival start-up Neeva Google playbook is that it charges a subscription, promising fewer ads and more privacy.

Bill Coughran, a former Google executive and now Neeva investor in venture capital firm Sequoia, sees his former employer’s reliance on ads as his greatest vulnerability. “The biggest problem is that you start to see more and more ads, and it becomes more and more complex for the user to understand what advertising is and what isn’t,” he said. he declared.

Neeva, who has raised $ 37.5 million in funding, also combines results from a user’s emails and other online personal information with what he hopes will be better web results in niches. specific, such as product search.

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

The two new companies have sprung up this year as Google faces a barrage of regulatory complaints, including two state-led antitrust lawsuits and one federal case in the United States, on what critics like Yelp allege monopolistic behavior.

Potential rivals are hoping it could create new opportunities, if only to distract Google with legal affairs or limit its ability to launch new products.

“For us, I think antitrust will help,” Socher said. “It depends on how it’s performed.” But he added, “I don’t think antitrust law will create happy users and customers – at the end of the day, you have to create an amazing experience.”

Several potential Google competitors have tried and failed to do so over the past 10 years. Spoon, which was founded by two former Google engineers, raised $ 33 million and built its own index of over 120 billion pages. But it closed in 2010 after just over two years of operation, after users complained about the quality of its results.

“Now that Google is being watched more closely by regulators, I hope that the unfair practices will disappear and that this will help competition,” Mr. Kroll said. “If you’re a small search engine, it’s really hard to access the technology, to get visibility, to access these very rare places in browsers.”

Winning those default search locations often comes at a price, such as ad revenue sharing, though Kroll declined to comment on his new deal with Apple, which came after a year of talks.

Another competitor

Apple itself appears to be creating 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 indexes from Microsoft’s Bing. But Mojeek wants to build his own index, to become truly independent.

“We’re the only real search engine that doesn’t follow you,” said Colin Hayhurst, Managing Director of Mojeek.

With £ 2.3million in funding, most from a sole investor, Mojeek’s team of seven collaborators gathered and sorted an index of 3.6 billion pages. It hopes to reach $ 6 billion by the end of 2021, although that is a far cry from Google’s hundreds of billions.

Mr Hayhurst suggested that other search engines that claimed to offer greater privacy still send certain data to Bing. “Most search engines aren’t really engines – they’re chassis,” he says. “You could say they are pawns in the Google-Microsoft war.”

So far, attempts by regulators to value the openness of the research market have encountered difficulties. the Android “screen of choice” auction, imposed by the European Commission in 2019 after fining Google $ 5 billion for imposing illegal restrictions on smartphone makers, has yet to have much impact, according to Michael Ostrovsky, professor at the Stanford University.

His recent article on the Google Managed Process, which introduces new Android users to a choice of search alternatives, found flaws in the way the auction was designed. He tends to favor dark companies which are more aggressive in monetizing users, he found, rather than names like DuckDuckGo or Ecosia that users recognize and therefore might be more likely to choose over Google.

“It is clear that the auction as it is currently conceived is not achieving its objectives,” he said. “What is important is not so much specific regulation, but knowing that the regulators are there and are paying attention.”

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