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Apr 1, 2021 6 min read

Vivek Raghunathan, Co-founder, Neeva: flipping the search engine business model on its head

Photo by Gratisography from Pexels

Wiser! Wisdom: Neeva is a subscription search engine that does not rely on ads. Unlike Google, which dominate Search, which means they're tracking your every move.

The search engine market is dominated by one player over everyone else. At the end of 2020, over 91% of internet searches were on Google. The exception was in eCommerce where Amazon takes the top spot as the starting point for around half of all product searches and online shopping.

Both of these big tech platforms have one thing in common; they’re free to use. This is because they’re paid for by advertising revenues. (And you can throw in Facebook and Twitter here for good measure).

Is that such a bad thing? Well, when I was growing up, my dad used to say to me, “son, there’s no such thing as a free lunch in this world”. He was a very wise man. And he was right.

In the case of search, we are the lunch! Or rather, the data and insights about us are the lunch that the tech firms dine off.

Of the big Four, Apple has separated from the pack. They differentiated themselves on this point when Tim Cook said “privacy is a human right”. Apple’s strategy leads with data privacy and it is genius because it’s not only differentiating (to Apple) as a strength, but it exposes this weakness in its opponents.

What the Apple strategy has done is put data privacy at the top of the agenda and make it a feature that customers are willing to pay for.

Source:  Statista

Source: Statista

As someone who is concerned about the direction of travel in big tech when it comes to privacy and my data, yes, I’d say it is time for a change.

Which is exactly what is coming with Neeva. Started by Sridhar Ramaswamy and Vivek Raghunathan, two ex-senior execs from the Ads and Monetisation teams at Google and YouTube. They both know first-hand how the ad model works in search and content.

With a shared vision, they quit their jobs in 2017, raised seed capital and started creating a new business model for a search engine machine. Together with their team of around 30, they have created Neeva, a personalised, subscription-based, ad-free search machine. (Update Oct '21: I just had a quick chat with Neeva and the team has grown to over 60 now and Neeva is now live and available to anyone in the United States.)

Neeva is different

To find out more about Neeva, I reached out to co-founder, Vivek Raghunathan. First up, I asked him about their plans for Neeva and what would make it so different and better than what we are used to today.

Vivek told me, “We believe that a customer-focused search engine, rather than an advertisment supported one, can be a better product. We bootstrapped using existing providers for results like sports, weather, news, etc., and we are investing ourselves in the core technologies of search: crawling to discover content, building indexing and quality systems to serve our customers the right results.”

Let’s break that down. First, the business model is going to be fundamentally different to Google and Amazon. Neeva will be a subscription service. Their customers will be you and me, not the advertisers buying our attention.

Second, Neeva is built on a platform of 3rd party services, such as Bing for search and Apple for maps.  The bits that Neeva have built will handle user privacy, private data and the personalisation of searches. Users will be able to connect all their different email accounts, social media profiles like LinkedIn and Facebook together with their multiple, disparate data stores to enhance the total search capability.

This will create a different user experience for Neeva’s customers because the service will be personalised to what the user is looking for rather than personalised to suit the advertiser who has paid the highest auction price to be top of the list.


Flipping the business model on its head

Vivek explained how the business model will work “We will charge a small monthly subscription fee, think the price of two coffees or one gourmet latte. This allows us to focus 100% on the user experience. While we think there’s a place in the world for big social platforms that rely on ads and tracking, we also think there’s room for a new paradigm that offers an alternative. an ad- and tracking-free search experience that works for our users.

“If just a small percentage of the population in the US and Europe subscribe, it can quickly grow into a sizable business. From there, people will see their search results are better since there is no interruption from ads, as well as the fact that they can get to rich results faster, whether from the public web or their own personal connected accounts.”

Different is as different does

The thing is this. All of us are used to having a free-to-use search engine and have learnt to accept the trade-off between privacy and advertising. It’s not like we have much choice anyway! It’s what we are all used to in the belief that we’re getting personalisation in return for our data.

But in reality, it’s a false sense of personalisation because it is skewed by the monopolistic advertising model. Those that pay the most get to the top of the search list and it pays off. The click through rates are around 70% on the 1st page of search results and only 6% for pages 2 and 3 combined!

This is why the case for a personalised, no-ads search engine in return for the price of a cup of coffee is so compelling. Google has no choice but to fill the first results page with ads. Whereas at Neeva, they believe in the principle that your data is yours.

Free from this obligation to prioritise ads, Neeva can return the information most suited to you. And you can trust that Neeva has done that without any conflict of interest.

Vivek explained it this way, “Neeva is unique because we think search should work for you and only you, not advertisers. When we show a user a result, we have no motive other than to get them to the most relevant piece of information. That allows us to then build a better search product for users.

“Neeva also helps you bring the context of your personal life such as email, contacts, documents into Neeva, making it the single place where you come to for information. If you type in the name of a friend, Neeva will paint a full picture of your relationship with that person: your recent emails, documents you have worked on together as well as the best of the information from the public web like their LinkedIn page or twitter posts.


“While traditional search engines are so full of ads that you won’t see an unpaid result on the first page of your phone, Neeva surfaces a visually rich page that focuses on getting you the results you need. We help navigate the different parts of the buying journey with rich visual information, reviews, and price comparisons that also take into account your personal preferences.

“Finally, we work hard to ensure your privacy in this online world. The rise of advertising has unfortunately meant the rise of tracking: everybody, especially the big advertising companies, try to keep track of everything we do. We have built technology to protect your privacy on the browser and on your phone.”

Digital Bill of Rights

To cement all of this good intent into their mission to be different, Neeva has published their own Digital Bill of Rights.

Written in plain speak, the Bill of Rights sets out Neeva’s policy for privacy online, data collection and controls, how your data will be used, and crucially, who owns it and what you can do with it.

The key here is the principle that you own your data. A simple enough principle but one that can be incredibly complicated to implement. Listen to this podcast “there’s no such thing as data” with Benedict Evans to get a sense of the issues.

So, there you have it, a new approach to internet searches. And it’s coming soon! Neeva is currently in beta testing before being launched to the general public later in the year.

So, there you have it. And it’s coming soon! Neeva is currently in beta testing before being launched to the general public later in the year.


Google Stats and Facts, by Statista

What America searched for on Google over the past 10 years by VisualCapitalist (animation)

An analysis of privacy on the Apple App Store

Google genius Ray Kurzweil predicts the future (from the archives, 2014)

63 Fascinating Google search statistics, by SEOTribunal.com

Amazon is now the world’s largest advertiser, by Adage.com

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