Neeva becomes a third choice. So far, Neeva has been closed to general users, with a long waiting list for applicants. But Ramaswamy tells me he will arrive in the UK – he hopes – by the fall.
Those who are already in the Neeva club are enthusiastic, and I understand why. The absence of misleading advertisements was like being catapulted into an alpine retreat – after years in urban smog, you forget the feeling of fresh air.
Neeva himself offers a stark illustration of why punters are underserved today. On a mobile search for “migraine”, only three results are immediately visible on the smartphone screen, and on Google, all three are advertisements. None of the three Google results disclose the source URL.
Neeva is therefore potentially very big news, but building a competitor to Google will not be cheap. He’s already taken in $70m (£55m) in venture capital, and that might not be enough. In 2017, the European Commission released a study showing the vast capital outlay needed to keep pace with Google. In 2006, Google spent three times more than its nearest rival. In 2015, it was almost 20 to one.
“Unless they’ve found a way to do research on a capital-light basis, there won’t be a competitor,” says Tim Cowen of Prieskel, the former chief policy officer of competition at BT who worked on cases against Google.
Neeva’s chief executive acknowledges that Google spends about $1 billion a year to run its search operations, but makes more than $100 billion in annual returns from the monopoly.
“A subscription model is fairer: we aspire to spend that billion dollars to run the search, but only generate $3 billion in revenue. Our incentives are much better aligned with the customer,” says Ramaswamy. The Founders originally intended it to be a subscription-only service – the US price is $49 per year – but it’s upping that with a “freemium” offer to grab some attention.
This is where the tough questions arise. We are inundated with subscriptions, so how can one search engine convince us to subscribe to another?
While Neeva bundles a password manager and a VPN client to sweeten the deal, it may take a lot more change for Neeva to realize its potential, and the biggest problem is the web itself.
Twenty years ago, I worked from my home office in San Francisco. Using just my public library card number, I could access databases that cost thousands of pounds a year, like Lexis Nexis, the newspaper search service.
The best information is not free and cannot be found on the web. Google has always been reluctant to license copyrighted material and has instead worked hard to create free alternatives to populate its index instead, such as Wikipedia. This may in fact be Google’s enduring cultural legacy – we are inundated with shoddy information.
If Neeva could license a fraction of the information beyond the reach of the web, the incentives would change along the information supply chain and the internet could become vibrant again. Neeva can expect a fight though. For all their talk of “disruptive innovation,” Silicon Valley tech titans hate being disrupted themselves.
Andrew Orlowski is on Twitter at @andreworlowski