New ad-free search engine bets people will pay for privacy

When you search for something online, chances are you are looking for it on Google. The company handles about 90% of search traffic worldwide and makes money selling ads based on what it knows about you. But there are competitors offering the ability to search privately, including a new one from people who learned the craft at Google.

Sridhar Ramaswamy worked in advertising at Google for 15 years. He is the co-founder of Neeva – an ad-free, subscription-based search engine launched on Tuesday. But why would people pay $4.95 a month for something they’re used to getting for free? The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Sridhar Ramaswamy: It’s more than privacy. In my mind, what we’ve learned over the past 10 years is that if a product is free, then you are the product. The $150 billion in Search Network advertising, paid for by advertisers, actually comes from you and me. So it’s a cost that we all bear, and in many ways we believe that a customer-centric model, where people pay a small fee, serves us all better in the long run. And we all pay for the water that comes to our tap. It is a high quality product at low cost. We don’t mind because it offers such immense value. I think online services should be more like water running from our tap than some hidden mechanism that brings in tons and tons of money without our knowledge, but ultimately we pay for these products.

Amy Scott: So when users start trying this, what do you want them to know about the experience so they don’t get frustrated and just hop on Google or give up? I mean, is it going to be a worse experience?

Ramaswamy: As a first step, we encourage our first users to send us their feedback. This is what makes the product better. We are just beginning to create this search engine. We see ourselves as a complement to Google. You know, are we happy with where we are? Absolutely not. But I would have given you the same answer if I had worked at Google on search quality. It is a continuous journey.

Scott: When you say Neeva will be an add-on to Google, you mean on an individual level, so people will use both here and there? Or do you see some sort of split between Camp Neeva and Camp Google?

Ramaswamy: So I think people generally make decisions about what they want to use as their primary search engine. So for a particular user, for example, what they set as their default search engine ends up being the search engine that receives most of their queries. For example, clearly I’m a Neeva user, but once in a while I’ll want to look at a Google Scholar because it’s a specialized site that offers things that Neeva doesn’t yet offer. So we see this as a user-level choice.

Scott: So you said you already have thousands of users who have tested it. What do you know what led them to this? Are they primarily concerned about privacy or do they want an ad-free experience?

Ramaswamy: Well, for us, the magic phrase that gets people going is “private search engine without ads”. This is why the majority of people who try Neeva try it. And then in terms of the segments of people who have shown an affinity with Neeva, Neeva has been a big hit with parents, with moms doing a lot of online shopping, for example. They love the uninfluenced experience they get with Neeva. It’s also been a hit with older people because there’s a lot of worry and worry about being tracked, clicking the wrong link, and phones doing weird things when you click on it. done. This security that we give them, both in the ad-free experience, but also by doing things like preventing tracking, resonates with them a lot. And so it becomes a combination of things. Different people end up liking different aspects of Neeva. But the “private without publicity” makes them move forward.

Scott: As we discussed, you have been at Google for a long time. Have you ever thought about trying to create change from within, instead?

Ramaswamy: So I led a lot of big changes at Google, and I didn’t really think a project like this was something that could be attempted from inside the company. This is getting too close to the fundamentals of how a business operates. You may make less money overall with subscription companies. Starting over allows you to focus on success instead of worrying about replacement income, which is always difficult for a business.

Scott: Misinformation has obviously been a huge challenge for anyone working on the internet and for Google. How do you plan to counter this?

Ramaswamy: Well, on some level we want our users, our customers to have control over that. That’s why we let people tell us their favorite information providers. So when you are looking for information, it takes priority. We’re also actively looking to work with companies like NewsGuard that are creating a nutrition label for news. In general, helping people navigate the online world with much more information about the type of site they are viewing and how trustworthy that information is, we believe, is an essential part of our mission. For example, on programming queries, we want to make sure that people can easily distinguish between official sites providing documentation and ad-supported sites which are sometimes good, but are generally of uneven quality. Likewise, we are working on a project for medical queries where you will be able to see what information comes from a government site or non-profit organization like a reputable hospital or educational institution, as opposed to a site whose the content was mostly provided by anonymous people. writers and who may or may not have editorial boards. Previous search engines have largely refrained from revealing this type of information due to this belief that obtaining is not scalable. So we think we can do a lot more to help people understand where information comes from and understand the motivations behind the different types of sites that exist, and really help them make better decisions when they seek out and consume information on the internet. .

Scott: It seems, however, that by giving people preference over their news sites, you risk a bit of the echo chamber problem. How do you envisage access to information in terms of personalization to the point of excluding contrary opinions?

Ramaswamy: I mean, some of these things are already happening in the sense that we don’t have subscriptions to every possible site. We express our preferences, and what Neeva does is it helps you get to sites that you already have a relationship with or have a preference for. Your broader point about the unintentional creation of echo chambers is certainly important, and the kind of things we want to do there are things like being able to see someone else’s viewpoints. So one of the things we talked about is if we can get some of our more well-known Neeva customers to make their preferences public? So we have ideas like that on how we continue to have, to offer broad perspectives to people.

Scott: Finally, tell me about the name.

Ramaswamy: Oh, I wish I had a clever story to tell you about “Neeva”. It’s really hard to come up with a name. And so, we made a list of syllables whose names we liked, and I literally wrote a program to generate all the two-syllable names and Neeva is the best we could manage. It took about a year and a half to get “Neeva.com” after that.

Related Links: More from Amy Scott

I’ve spent some time Neeva-ing, with mixed results. I searched for a cafe and got results for Gainesville, Florida; Georgia, Indianapolis and Phoenix. Which is fine, but my location was set to Baltimore. It’s the beginning.

To give you an idea of ​​how high the hill Neeva is trying to climb, journalist Daisuke Wakabayashi had an article in the New York Times last year why Google is so dominant in search and why it will be hard for anyone to catch up. At the time, Google had indexed around 500 to 600 billion web pages, a number that continues to grow.

Its closest competitor, Microsoft’s Bing, had indexed between 100 and 200 billion. Due to Google’s dominance, websites often provide greater access to Google’s web crawlers – computers that crawl the web to index content. Software engineer Zack Maril did extensive research and discovered that sites such as PBS Kids, Alibaba and ScienceDirect allowed Google’s crawlers to access content they denied others. Doing all that web crawling to build an index is expensive, one of the reasons startups fail or rely on the work of others. Neeva said he does some of his own crawling, but also uses Bing’s application programming interface for basic search results.

And Neeva is not the only search engine that offers privacy to its users. DuckDuckGo doesn’t track you around the web or share your data, and ad-blocking browser Brave now offers a beta private search feature called Brave search. Brave is building a web-independent index but will integrate results from Google and Bing. The plan is to offer a free ad-supported version and a paid ad-free option.

Finally, Google itself is committed to providing users with more privacy. Last year, the company said it would no longer allow third-party cookies on its Chrome browser by 2022. Advertisers use these cookies to track your browsing data and show you targeted ads, and many wanted more. time to adapt to the new technology that replaces cookies. Some were still unconvinced by Google’s claims that its replacements would be nearly as effective as cookies. Now Google is delaying those plans for a year, saying it needs to act at a “responsible rhythm”.

It was great to be with you last month while Molly Wood is on assignment. On Wednesday, Kimberly Adams takes over for a while.