How an ex-Googler is building the future of search

Neeva CEO Sridhar Ramaswamy joins the Source Code podcast.

How an ex-Googler is building the future of search

Sridhar Ramaswamy, the CEO of Neeva, is making a new search engine.

Photo: Neeva

Sridhar Ramaswamy worked at Google for 15 years. By the end of his time at the company, he ran a team of thousands that helped make Google make billions. How? By selling ads.

Now, Ramaswamy is out to do something different. He's the CEO and co-founder of Neeva, a new search engine that has no ads, aims to preserve user privacy and relies on a $4.95 monthly subscription to make it a real business. Ramaswamy is convinced that's the right way to build the search engine the world needs now, and to build a company that can do right by users, investors and the internet, all at the same time.

Neeva's first pitch is pretty simple: It's search without the ads. It's a cleaner, nicer-looking system, and one that doesn't try to game users into clicking on things they didn't want. Ramaswamy is confident that pitch will work, at least for some people, but he knows that in the long run "Google minus the ads" can't be his only move. So he has some big ideas about what search can be going forward as well.

After months in beta, Neeva launched to the public on Tuesday. To mark the occasion, Ramaswamy joined the Source Code podcast to talk about the job a search engine does, how things change when you get rid of ads and why he's not worried that Google's going to crush him.

You can listen to our full conversation on this episode of the Source Code podcast. Below are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

I think you could make the case that nobody has really sat down and asked the question, "What is a search engine for?" since Google. You had a different idea about a business model, and a different idea about sort of the look and feel of search. But when you sat down to think about it, what is the job of a search engine in 2021? Is it the same thing it was in the early days of Google?

I'd say our expectations are very, very different. A lot of this is just good, natural product evolution. Quite a bit of it was done by Google, but other people have contributed. Image Search, for example, was actually pioneered by live.com. That's how innovation works: People copy those ideas. So I think everything from, "I want instant answers to certain kinds of questions," or "I want the stock information right on the page," expectations have changed a lot.

At Neeva, we said we can reimagine search because of a different business model. But there are also expectations for what was required to be in it that we just had to acknowledge. The simplest example of this, by the way, is something like currency conversion: If you type in "20 euros to USD," the expectation for most customers today is that the answer is right there on the search result page, not that you're going to click on the first site and then go do your conversion there. So yes, there is the reimagination part. But there is also a baseline expectation of what people want. Integration of local is another similar thing, it's just table stakes, we have to get it done.

It seems like you're thinking about search less as one big omnibus thing, where you just type stuff in and blue results come back, and more as a series of individual products. And I think, to some extent, search is that way now, right? When you search for a product, the thing you want is very different from when you search for plane tickets. Is that a reasonable way to think about search going forward, less as one giant thing in a box and more as a collection of different kinds of experiences?

Yeah, it's very much a Swiss Army knife of different kinds of tools that are needed for different kinds of things. And our take on this is also that just focusing entirely on what the searcher wants lets us rethink these different tools that are part of search.

The examples that you've seen are things like product queries. Something that we want to work on over the next few months is, for things like travel queries, we can just make it a lot more visual. It's a lot harder for a commercial search engine to make things more visual, because pixel for pixel, they just don't make as much money. It always makes more money to show text rather than images. But those are the kinds of things where, if you are looking for Airbnb rentals in Lake Tahoe, you ideally just want to see a grid of pictures, not necessarily some text results.

And yes, it is a set of tools. But how do you put them together? What's the glue that holds them together? We have ideas like Spaces, which are a nod to the fact that searches are often complicated research, and not one query in isolation. How do you help people with the whole journey?

Talk me through the shopping example, because that's one you've been thinking about since the very beginning of Neeva. When you go from something like Amazon search, or Google search, which are fundamentally ad-driven businesses — and I think everybody understands now the trade-offs that you make with those things — what does it look like to scrap all of that and ask, "What do people want when they search for products?"

So the first thing is the broad intent. Meaning that when you look for a product, it might be because you're curious. You saw it on a TV show, or your friend said something about it, or you saw it on social media, you just want to learn about it. And so we tend to take a broad view of "What does David mean when he is searching for a particular pair of headphones?" And sometimes it's just curiosity, you just want to learn about the product, you want to see the card on the right and say, "Oh, that's interesting," and go on your way.

Or maybe it is that you want to see reviews of related items. And so it's much more about accepting the fact that people have different interests: If you want reviews, we highlight reviews. If you want to actually shop for the product, you should be able to find retailers that have the product. But other subtle things also come in.

It's also about listening to your preferences. One of one of the things that surprised me was, we got a fair amount of feedback that say things like, "I don't want large retailers when I'm on shopping queries," or, "I have preferences for these five people that I buy from, can you really create me a custom search engine just for these retailers that I care about?" Not all of it is done, but when you begin to think of this experience as not being one experience that is visualized for everybody on the planet, you can give agency to the person that's actually running the search.

For clothing, for example, one thing that people frequently ask is, "I only want to buy from retailers that ethically sourced their materials." Again, that's something that we have ideas for how to work on. And so we'd have to go look for, what are the certifications that this retailer has? Are they trustworthy? So on and so forth. And then you want to surface that back on the search result page.

In terms of the basics of a search engine, where people are just wanting an answer to a question or to find the name of the 23rd president of the United States or whatever, how much do you feel like you need to reinvent the wheel? I would imagine part of the balance of Neeva is trying to figure out, how do you do Google things as well as Google? And how do you do totally non-Google things?

Yeah, there are a set of things that have to do with the core infrastructure, whether it's the crawling, the indexing, the ranking layer, just getting that basic level of expertise. Even things like understanding the structure of pages, anonymously, for quality purposes, but also for deciding what it is that you want to show. So there is that baseline and infrastructure, which is hard for any startup. It's certainly hard for us. We have a very, very good team, and we are thoughtful about which are the verticals in which we want to invest the most.

The other area in which we have begun to think more is how we facilitate better partnerships. One of the things that I felt passionately about, over the past several years — this is within Google also — was that the ads model was not going to be a long-term answer for great content. Not for evil reasons, but it is a little bit of a winner-takes-all model, where a few companies are going to be very good at it. How many companies have the capacity to have 20,000-person, 80-country global sales teams? It turns out, it's a thing. It's just really, really hard to deal with that kind of people complexity, to have all those first-party relationships.

And so an important part of Neeva was, we want much better alignment with content creators, which is why early on — and clearly it's a pledge rather than meaningful dollars today — we said we're going to keep aside a portion of our gross revenue and hand it out to content creators. There are lots of details to be worked out, but the rough idea is that if there is interesting content that we can show that is part of the search experience, we will come up with a formula not dissimilar to, say, the YouTube creator formula for how revenue is apportioned.

To me, that also becomes a really interesting way to create differentiated experiences. We are able to do previews of Quora pages on Neeva. You can see them right within the search experience, because they are an early partner for us. And it turns out that content creators and publishers want more than the revshare, or they want other things. So what can Neeva do, for example, to make it super easy for a Neeva user to sign up for a Protocol newsletter? And as we grow, we also want to do things like support subscriptions for content creators at cost, and not become another toll taker. So that becomes another interesting way in which you can create pretty unique experiences within the context of Neeva.

One question I've seen you get asked a lot is, why won't Google just copy you and run you out of business? And I get the distinct sense that's not something you're worried about. The idea of Google suddenly charging $10 a month for google.com seems pretty unlikely.

It's just hard. You run into a lot of issues within the team. All the big changes that you have to make when you're a large and successful team takes an enormous amount of effort. I just think that there's going to be a lot of resistance, there are serious economics here to deal with.

And in many ways, I think a big player coming out with a subscription also validates it. Part of the reason why people try Neeva is not just because we have this great product. Yes, we want that to be a reason! But people also want choice. People are now truly beginning to understand that 90-plus percent market share for an important function just is not that great a situation.

I've been talking to people for years about, when are actual people going to start caring about privacy? And the joke among all the reporters I knew was like, the surest way to get no one to read your story is to write about privacy. That seems to have changed in a meaningful way, and I get the sense that you've led with this push for "it's search without ads, and it's a better thing because the model is purer." What's the thinking behind being so out in front with that as the early pitch? Is that working for you?

So the way I think about this is in distinct phases. I think about, what do we tell you, a potential new user that is maybe vaguely interested? And the nice thing about the vaguely interested is, thanks to the current climate, people are actively seeking out alternatives for search engines. Something like 25-plus percent have tried an alternate search engine just in the last month.

So when we first talk to someone, you have like two seconds to make an impression. And so we describe ourselves as an ad-free, private search engine. And that immediately piques a bit of interest.

The funny thing is, if we then send out surveys to them, after a month, after two months, of them being on Neeva, the answers that we get back are very different. We get answers like, "I feel safer now that ads are not chasing me anywhere." "I get quality results all the time." People also say things like "I feel calmer, because ads are not chasing me." And the third one that comes up as a benefit is, "I feel this is just a better model for the world than one that is driven by advertisers."

It seems to me that that would be useful, but not sufficient over time, if that's your only thing. It's a reason to try something, you need other reasons to keep people forever, right? Like how, how far do you think that gets you before you have to have sort of a second thing?

The thing that we're discovering is that people will fall in love with individual aspects of the product. A fraction will do things like connect their personal data and be able to search over that, that becomes a big value. Others will say the ability to find high-quality, authoritative sites or to be able to find reviews is a big deal.

This is typical of subscription economics: There is some set of actions that puts people over the edge of saying, "Aha, this product is worth it." We have talked to lots of people at companies like Spotify and Dropbox in terms of what is that aha moment. But part of how we product designers think in terms of the product is, how do we get David to take one or more of these actions that convinced them of the value of this product?

People also realize that they're dealing with a daily use function. When a user shows up to Neeva, on a given day, they will on average do like a dozen queries. I think one of the benefits that Neeva has, as opposed to an app that's on the third screen of your phone that you might or might not get to, is you get that repeat usage. Obviously, that's a double-edged sword, because if you're not great on quality, you get kicked out right away. But for the users that stick, we get a lot of repeat usage, and there is that constant reinforcement that the product is delivering value for you.

That habit seems like one of the things that has made competing with Google so historically difficult. If I just go to the address bar of my browser and type, it's going to take me to Google, right? Google spends an awful lot of money making sure that that's the case. So my sense would be that the single biggest thing for you to overcome would be getting people to use you by default. Instead of going to neeva.com, you have to get them to change the default in their browser or install the extension or use your app instead of the Google app or whatever. Is that hurdle as high as I think it is?

It is the biggest hurdle. On Chrome, actually, it is relatively easy in the big scheme of things for people to install an extension, and then have the default change. But we're still arguing with them about a pop-up that they show after your first search, which says, "Hey, do you want to change the search back to Google?" It's designed in a way that the default click is to change things, and so if you're a careless user, you're going to click on the right side and switch Neeva back off?

But remember, our bar is high, meaning that we have to be as good as Google or better on all of the queries, because there's always this worry: Am I missing out on something by using the small company's product? So I would say those are the two biggest hurdles for us to cross.

This is where, actually, things like the additional scrutiny on the antitrust cases are interesting and potentially even short-term useful. Because if it is mandated that there be a choice screen when Safari is first opened, or when Chrome is first open, and we are one of them, we actually feel quite confident that a lot of people will try the product, stay on the product and actually we have a chance at converting them into into into a customer. But solving the default use case is one of the biggest hurdles that we have. And the biggest predictor of whether a user will stay on with Neeva for three months is, do they install the extension and change their default search? That is the reality of where we live today.

Plus, mobile in general seems to be a huge sticking point for anyone trying to reinvent this stuff. I talk to folks who are trying to build browsers, and they're like, "Well, we can only make so much of a dent because Facebook uses its own browser and Twitter uses its own browser and Safari exists." Worming your way into that space seems substantially harder on mobile than it is on desktop, which is tough because mobile is obviously the most important platform.

Yes, it is a big hurdle. But, you know, no one said startups are easy! Especially taking on important problems. We want to get the product to a point where you as a customer that bought an iPhone are going to ask, "Why is it that I can't set Neeva as my search engine on this phone?" It's up to us to do the work to get to that point. And hopefully the rest of it will work out.

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