Sridhar Ramaswamy, former SVP of advertising at Google has launched a new search engine named Neeva that, ironically, carries no advertising. Along with co-founder Vivek Raghunathan, another ex-Googler, he believes consumers will willingly pay $4.95 a month for a search engine that protects their privacy while returning results designed to meet their needs rather than maximize ad revenues. VC firms including Sequoia Capital and Greylock Partners (where Ramaswamy is a venture partner) have bet more than $77 million that he’s right.
Search–and online experience in general–is bad and getting worse. That’s the premise behind Neeva. There’s an inherent conflict of interest every time you enter a term into Google and the search giant, through its algorithms, has to choose whether to prioritize you or its advertisers. In effect, Neeva’s founders argue, you become the product that Google is selling to advertisers, who are its actual customers. “Neeva was born out of this realization that we had that search had become more about serving advertisers than about really serving users,” Ramaswamy said in an interview at the recent Web Summit conference. “It was also a reaction to ads taking over our online life.”
He knows this first-hand, having worked in exactly this area during many of his 15 years at Google, and having fought a bitter fight over whether users’ search histories should be shared with other companies. Before Sundar Pichai replaced Larry Page as Google CEO, Ramaswamy was thought by some to be a contender for the job.
Neeva is currently free and available only in the U.S., and has about 40,000 members three months after its launch, Ramaswamy says. “Everything has been organic growth, without a dollar being spent,” he added. The company will eventually charge users $4.95 a month for consumers using its search, with higher-priced business plans as well.
Why would consumers–or businesses–pay for search when Google and other search engines are available for free? Ramaswamy’s reasoning may or may not convince you, but here it is:
1. Search that isn’t ad-supported will return much better results.
“In several classes of queries, we can actually do a much better and much different job,” he said. “When you look for products on Neeva, you’re going to get a lot of places that show reviews. So you’ll get information that helps you learn about a product and then decide if you want to buy it. In the current model, if you look for a product, you’re going to be flooded with ads all trying to get you to buy something.”
2. You’ll know more about the sites you visit.
The internet is full of all sorts of information, but much of it is worthless. How can you know which information to trust? Neeva helps by partnering with NewsGuard, which rates websites on nine different parameters to determine their credibility and transparency. These parameters include such things as whether or not the site is advertising-supported, whether it distinguishes news from opinion, posts corrections when its information is inaccurate, and so on. For example, when I searched a health-related term, Neeva told me that CDC.gov was a more trustworthy site than HealthyAndNaturalWorld.com. When I tried the same search on Google, CDC.gov did not even appear on the first page.
3. You can tailor results to your preferences.
Google, of course, tailors results to users’ preferences, for instance prioritizing sites that it knows you often click on, returning locally relevant results, and so on. But, although you can turn things like location relevance off or on, Google is generally the one to decide what it thinks your preferences are.
Neeva gives users more ability to state their own preferences. In its settings, you can choose among news sources and identify those you want to see higher up in your results. The company is also working on building in other preferences that users can impose, such as small companies rather over big box stores, or a preference for sustainable products. Other search engines can’t easily offer those choices because they’d be depriving themselves of advertising revenue.
4. You’ll have more privacy.
This benefit isn’t unique to Neeva–some ad-supported search engines, such as DuckDuckGo offer privacy as well. Ramaswamy says privacy in search is particularly important to many users. “People put in stuff that they would not dream of saying in a conversation with anyone,” he said. “And it’s not deluded stuff, it’s things like ‘I have this headache that won’t go away,’ or ‘I have a rash.'”
Not only will Neeva never share users’ data with anyone, in the settings you can choose to have the search engine forget your search history altogether. What’s more, if you install the Neeva browser extension, it will block other sites from tracking you as well. “So those annoying ads that follow you on social media are a thing of the past,” Ramaswamy said.
Will all these enticements be enough to convince meaningful numbers of users to pay for Neeva every month? Ramaswamy believes they will because search is a several-times-a-day activity for most people, and some number will happily pay a small sum to have that experience improved. “I’m not saying there’s an easy journey,” he said. “But on the other hand, for a subscription search engine, even a relatively low market share is a big deal. Even 1 percent in the U.S. gets us off to a good start, and something like 5 percent of the U.S. and Western Europe actually would make us a search juggernaut.” Will Neeva ever reach that 5 percent? We’ll have to wait and see.