Over the past two decades, various upstart search engines have tried to take on Google and largely failed – including Microsoft’s Bing. And notwithstanding the recent crop of privacy search players lead by DuckDuckGo, the time may finally be ripe for a true competitive challenge.
That challenge may come from Sridhar Ramaswamy, who formerly ran Google’s massive ad business. Ramaswamy left Google in 2018 and was succeeded by Prabhakar Raghavan, who now runs Google search. Ads is also part of Raghavan’s new charge.
The first major differentiator is that it will not have advertising and be subscription-supported. It will not track users and it will be personalized. Personalization will reportedly be accomplished without data mining. Neeva has so far raised $37.5 million and has 25 employees.
Neeva won’t reinvent the search wheel; it will sit on top of existing content and data sources: Bing search results, Apple Maps, weather.com and other data sources. Neeva will also search personal files like email and “local” documents along with the web.
It’s an audacious project and operates as a kind of repudiation of Google.
Disillusionment lead to departure. According to the NY Times’ profile, Ramaswamy grew disillusioned at Google and ultimately left the company as a result. “The relentless pressure to maintain Google’s growth, he said, had come at a heavy cost to the company’s users. Useful search results were pushed down the page to squeeze in more advertisements, and privacy was sacrificed for online tracking tools to keep tabs on what ads people were seeing.”
Ramaswamy also told the Times that the quality and usefulness of search results on Google has been compromised by the focus on ad revenue. There are many in the industry who would agree. But a “relentless” focus on revenue growth is an inevitable function of being a public company. “It’s a slow drift away from what is the best answer for the user and how do we surface it,” Ramaswamy explained.
Neeva will initially be free and then cost “less than $10 per month,” with the ambition of lowering the price as more subscribers join. Conventional wisdom says the subscription model is a non-starter and will never capture more than a small percentage of users if that.
Why we care. The safe position is to dismiss Neeva. If Bing, with Microsoft’s massive resources, wasn’t able to made significant inroads against Google how will Neeva? But there appears to be anecdotal evidence of meaningful pent-up demand for credible alternatives to Google — emphasis on the word “credible.”
To succeed, Neeva will have to deliver on its promise of search quality. It will also need to capture immediate attention with some novel capability or feature that is fundamentally different from Google. And it will need to build a loyal following of technology search influencers who promote it by word of mouth — with perhaps a Gmail-style scarcity-based rollout to make access more exclusive. Finally, it will need to clearly sell the benefits of the subscription model, which will be fundamentally challenging.
But Neeva doesn’t need significant market share to succeed; it just needs to develop a large enough user base to sustain itself financially. Then it can take aim at capturing market share over the long term.