Re-imagining search by Sridhar Ramaswamy

Published on
July 21st, 2021
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I don’t have to remind you how far off course mainstream search has gone. Today, one can barely tell where the ads end and your search begins.
Twenty years ago, modern search engines were born, ushering forth a revolution in how we consume information. With a world of information suddenly at our fingertips, we didn’t mind when we were occasionally shown an unobtrusive ad on the search page. It seemed like a pretty good deal.
But, a lot has changed since then.
First, the presence of a vast array of ads on top of the search results pushes down and deprioritizes the information we are searching for. After all, when most of us are searching for flu symptoms, we want to know the symptoms—not see an ad for cough syrup, and certainly not an ad for cough syrup that will then follow us across the Internet for the coming weeks.
Second, ad-supported search engines face the daily pressure of returning value to their shareholders by prioritizing advertisers and ad revenue. This has several unintended consequences, including ever-increasing ad-load, ad-driven content that can be misleading and harmful, and practices that value profit over user privacy.
These problems are further exacerbated by the fact that there is a lack of competition in the search space. With one company controlling more than 90% of the market, consumers have few viable alternatives and entrepreneurs may be hesitant to enter the space. The lack of competition means fewer incentives for traditional search engines to spend the resources and time creating innovative features that better serve consumers. Moreover, any industry where one company has outsized control is generally bad for society. This is even more relevant when that industry is responsible for how billions of people gain access to knowledge and information.
Having led Google’s advertising products for several years I have a unique understanding of these challenges and the conflicts that arise from an ad-supported model. I, along with my co-founder Vivek Raghunathan who ran YouTube’s monetization, witnessed firsthand the slow, but steady logical march toward a world where organic search content may cease to exist. It’s a world we did not want to see and therefore made a decision to not only part ways with our former employer, but also decided to start a new company tackling the very source of the problem.
Society, and our democracy, will benefit from more search engines, offering different kinds of experiences and preferences to fit people’s individual needs.
Society, and our democracy, will benefit from more search engines, offering different kinds of experiences and preferences to fit people’s individual needs. To get there, we need more than a few bold entrepreneurs willing to change the status quo, we also need to re-examine how best to ensure a fair playing field. Monopolies are bad for innovation and bad for consumers. Humanity is better served when you have more choice in the products and services you use. More choice and market competition leads to a better experience for consumers. With more competition and opportunity in the market, there’s greater chance for new companies to create innovative products and compete with the existing leading platforms.
Alternative models not only offer choice, they foster creativity. For example, by flipping the traditional ad-supported business model to a subscription model, a search company such as Neeva is no longer tethered to third parties that may not be aligned with the best interests of consumers. Instead, the entire focus can be on creating a product with features that deliver absolute value to an individual. For example, one of the core tenets with an ad model is to keep individuals on the platform for as long as possible to increase the visibility of ads and the likelihood they will click on those ads. In reality the sole purpose should be to best answer a user’s query as quickly as possible. Whether that person remains on the site for one second or one hour should be independent from the need to satisfy ads. The two goals could not be farther apart, yet that is what the last 20 years of search has delivered.
When the business no longer relies on advertisers for revenue, the team gets the freedom to dream up new ideas and build the type of search experience that couldn’t exist before.
When the business no longer relies on advertisers for revenue, the team gets the freedom to dream up new ideas and build the type of search experience that couldn’t exist before. This means giving more choice to consumers on the preferences for news outlets or filters that enable a shopper to search for only small retailers or companies that ethically source materials. Instead of showing an entire page of results, the right answer with an infographic could be shown in the search bar.
Not only do alternative models have significant impacts on a consumer’s overall search experience, they can have major implications for privacy. Tracking personal data is at the core of any ads ecosystem. Tracking, storing, analyzing and selling personal data are the currencies that make the ads world thrive. However, without ads, strong privacy policies and user protections can be core features of the product rather than a business tradeoff. At Neeva (which we launched today on Product Hunt), we view privacy as a fundamental value and our commitment to never share or sell personal data informs all of our decisions about what we build.
In addition to the increasingly negative consumer experience, traditional search engines have too often failed to reward the creators of the content shared with billions of people. There is an enormous opportunity to change this relationship and support the content ecosystem. Rather than being a toll collector for the web’s content, Neeva is strongly pro-publisher. We are committed to creating revenue opportunities for content creators. This includes sharing at least 20% of our topline revenue with content creator partners when their content is used to directly answer a Neeva user’s query.
While we are a new company, and there is much for us to do, we think making an early commitment to supporting quality information on the web is foundational for a search engine. And as we grow, we plan to explore additional ways to help content creators monetize the value they deliver to consumers.
Learn more about Neeva.
Comments (5)
Hire 600,000+ software developers
Great insights, wishing you all the success for your endeavour.
Marketing at Wylo | Communities ❤️
Such a well-written article. But I'm curious. What's the first moment when you felt there's something wrong with the current search mechanism? And any thoughts on getting users from India? Cause, you might know how allergic Indian people might be when it comes to spending money when there's an alternative available. Also, is Neeva trying to get into huge organizations? Or just public in general?
Vladimir Levitin
Founder of NextHuman
Thanks for the article. It's so insightful to hear the thoughts of the front people in the industry. Could you describe your opinion on the following? Search engines as a service became a commodity. There are no technical or legal thresholds. That makes expenses for entering the market dropping to zero. This fact drags lowering the margin and forces competitors to compete with marketing only. That's why Google has 90%, they're just unbeatable until they make some huge mistake. The same way it was for banking service and now they play with zero margins. The main service is used only as a channel for user acquisition but not as a product for sale. Do you have a secondary product to drive revenue? Selling good content by subscription is already a well-established market as well, so there is no upside too.
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