French startup Qwant, whose no-track search engine is gaining traction in its home market as a privacy-friendly alternative to Google, has changed its management team as it prepares for the next phase of growth .
Former Mozilla Europe President Tristan Nitot, who joined Qwant last year as Vice President of Advocacy, has been promoted to Managing Director, succeeding François Messager – who also joined in 2018 but is now leaving the company. company. Qwant co-founder Eric Leandri, meanwhile, continues in the same role as chairman.
Nitot, an internet veteran who worked at Netscape and helped found Mozilla Europe in 1998, where he later served as president and remained until 2015 before leaving to write a book on surveillance, brings a wealth of experience in product and communication roles, as well as open source.
Most recently, he spent several years working for personal cloud startup, Cozy Cloud.
“I’m basically here to help [Leandri] grow the business and structure the business,” Nitot tells TechCrunch, describing the Qwant founder as an “incredible, bold, and visionary entrepreneur.”
Market headwinds have improved for privacy-focused rival Google in recent years as worries about foreign mining tech giants have intensified in Europe.
Last year the French government has announced that it will change its default search from Google to Qwant. Purchasing local digital technology is now apparently seen as a wise product choice as well as good policy.
Meanwhile, antitrust scrutiny of dominating search giant Google, both at home and abroad, has led to policy changes that directly benefit search rivals — like an update to listings. by default integrated into its chromium engine which was quietly released earlier this year.
This behind-the-scenes change saw Qwant added as an option for French market users for the first time. (Upon hearing the news, a sardonic Leandri thanked Google — but suggested Qwant users choose Firefox or the Brave browser for a less scary web browsing experience.)
“Many companies and institutions have decided and realized that they are using a search engine that is not European. Who collects data. Massively. And that makes them uncomfortable,” says Nitot. “They didn’t make a conscious decision about it. Because they bring in a computer that has a browser that has a search engine set as default – and in the end you just can’t choose which search engine your people use, can you.
“And so they’re making the conscious decision to switch to Qwant. And we’ve put a lot of time and energy into that – and it pays off a lot.
As well as defaulting about 3 million French government desktops to Qwant (which it says will be done this quarter), the privacy-friendly search engine has caught the attention of other ministries and regional government, as well as major banks and schools, according to Nitot.
He attributes the focus on search products for schoolchildren to building momentum, such as Qwant Junior, which is designed for children aged 6 to 12, and excludes sex and violence from search results. while being ad-free. (It should be updated in the coming weeks.) It has also just been supplemented by Qwant School: a school research product aimed at 13-17 year olds.
“All of this is creating more users – kids are telling their parents about Qwant Junior, and parents are installing Qwant.com for them. So there’s a lot of momentum creating that growth,” Nitot suggests.
Qwant says it handled over 18 billion search queries in 2018.
A growing business needs money to fuel it of course. So fundraising efforts involving convertible bonds are an area Nitot says he will focus on in the new role. “We are fundraising,” he confirms.
Increasing efficiency – especially on the engineering front – is another key objective for the new CEO.
“The rest will be focused on the organization, per se, on how we structure the organization. How we evolve the corporate culture. To enable or improve the delivery of the engineering team, for example” , he says. “It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that we have to make sure that every dollar or euro that we invest brings in as much return as possible.”
On the product front, Nitot’s near-term focus will be on delivering a new version of Qwant’s search engine which will involve re-engineering core technology to improve the quality of results.
“What we want to do [with v2] is to improve the quality of results,” he says of the basic search product. “You won’t be able to notice any difference, in terms of quality, with other really good search engines you might use — except you know your privacy is respected by Qwant.
“[As we raise more funding] we will be able to have a lot more infrastructure to run better and more powerful algorithms. We therefore plan to improve this internationally… All languages will benefit from the new search engine. It’s also a question of money and infrastructure to make it work at web scale. Because the web is huge and growing.
“The new version includes NLP (Natural Language Processing) technology… to understand language, to understand intentions – for example, do you want to buy something or are you looking for a reference… or a place or a thing. That’s the kind of thing we’re putting in place, but it’s going to get a lot better for each language involved.
Western Europe will be the focus of the search engine v2, starting with French, German, Italian, Spanish and English – with a plan to “go beyond more late”.
Nitot also says there will also be staggered rollouts (starting with France), with Qwant planning to run old and new versions in parallel to check the quality of the new version before finally switching users.
“Shipping is tough as they say at Mozilla,” he remarks, declining to be set on a launch date for v2 (beyond saying it’ll arrive in “less than a year.” ). “It’s a universal rule; shipping a new product is hard, and that’s what we want to do with version 2… I’ve been writing software since 1980, so I know what the predictions are when it comes to software release dates. So I’m very careful not to make any promises.
Further developing its own advertising technologies is another objective for Qwant. On this front, the goal is to improve margins by relying less on partners like Microsoft.
“Until now, we worked with partners, especially on search engine results pages,” explains Nitot. “We put Microsoft advertising there. And our goal is to accelerate ad technologies so that we rely on our own technologies – something we control. And this, hopefully, will bring a better yield.
Like Google, Qwant monetizes searches by showing ads next to results. But unlike Google, these are contextual ads, meaning they’re based on general location and the substance of the search itself; rather than targeted ads that involve persistent tracking and profiling of internet users to inform ad choice (hence the perception that ads are stalking you across the internet).
Serving contextual ads is a choice that allows Qwant to offer a credible privacy commitment that Mountain View simply cannot match.
Yet until 2006, Google also served contextual ads, as Nitot points out, before slipping into privacy-hostile microtargeting. “It’s a good old idea,” he says of contextual ads. “We use it. We think that’s a really worthwhile idea.
Qwant is also working on privacy-aware advertising technology. A current area of work is personalization. It develops a client-side, browser-based, encrypted data store called Masq, which is intended to store and retrieve application data over a WebSocket connection. (Here is the Masq project Github page.)
“Because we don’t know the person using the product, of course it’s difficult to do customization. So we plan to do product customization on the client side,” he explains. “Which means the server side won’t have any more detail than we currently have, but on the client side we’re producing something that’s open source, which stores the data locally on your device – whether it’s be it a laptop or smartphone – in the browser it’s encrypted so no one can reuse it unless you decide you want it to happen.
“And it’s open source so it’s transparent and can be audited and so people can trust the technology because it runs on their own device, it stores on their device.”
“At the moment it’s in alpha stage,” Nitot adds of Masq, declining to elaborate on when exactly it might be ready for a wider launch.
The ultimate goal of the new CEO for Qwant is to become the search engine for Europe – an extremely ambitious objective which remains far from being achieved for the moment, Google still holding more than 90% of regional market share. (A dominance that has dragged its business into antitrust hot water in Europe.)
Yet today’s Internet is not the same as yesterday’s Internet when Netscape was a staple of browsing – until Internet Explorer knocked it off its perch after Microsoft bundled its rival upstart as the default browser on Windows. And the rest, as they say, is internet history.
A lot has changed and a lot is changing. But abuses of market power are an old story. And as regulators act against today’s self-serving defaults, there are savvy alternatives like Qwant primed and waiting to offer consumers another kind of value.
“Qwant is created in Europe for European citizens with European values,” says Nitot. “Privacy being one of those values that are at the heart of our mission. It is no coincidence that the CNIL — the French data protection authority — was created in France in 1978. It was the first time such a thing was created. And then GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] was created in Europe. This does not happen by accident. It’s about values and how people view their lives and the things around them, politics and all that. We are very concerned about privacy in France. It is written in the European Declaration of Human Rights.
“We are building a product that reflects these values - so it is attractive to European users.”