For all intents and purposes, this idea could be called “replacing Google.” Sure, there are some other search engines with market share, such as Bing and Yahoo!, but you can’t replace Google by imitating it, so I’m not going to focus on them. Instead, I’ll focus on search engines that have created, or are attempting to create, systems that are altogether different and offer unique alternatives to Google. Paul Graham was unsure whether this was a possible feat at the time of his “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas” essay in March of 2012, but did note some signs of weakness he was seeing in Google. Since that time, we’ve seen some of them grow and others emerge. I’ll focus on three main weaknesses, two of which Graham addressed and one that has emerged more recently. They are as follows: (1) Google isn’t setting its own agenda anymore; (2) It is no longer consistently providing the “right” answers; and (3) Those valuing privacy have lost trust in Google.
A year and a half ago, Graham said that he was beginning to see Facebook and others set Google’s agenda, and Google venturing into areas it didn’t excel in, such as social media. He compared it to Microsoft entering the search business after feeling threatened by Google, something that wasn’t a natural fit and they weren’t experts in. This past Friday, Google surprisingly announced that it has agreed to sell Facebook ad inventory on its bidding platform, DoubleClick Bid Manager. While this isn’t the first partnership between the two companies, it certainly came as a surprise to many experts. Todd Wasserman, the business editor at Mashable, titled his article, “Hell Freezes Over: Google to Sell Facebook Ads,” following the announcement, which succinctly captured the general reaction to the news. There’s no doubt that Google is still one of the most powerful companies in the world, and, from a business aspect, just joined the $1,000 club, but are they losing some control? Perhaps.
An ideal search engine immediately provides users with the right answers, saving them time and earning their loyalty. “Google used to give me a page of the right answers, fast, with no clutter. Now the results seem inspired by the Scientologist principle that what’s true is what’s true for you,” Graham wrote. This is something Google has heard loud and clear from its users. At the end of September, it announced the launch of “Hummingbird,” its new search algorithm. Hummingbird is the biggest change Google has made to search in twelve years. The company has been around for fifteen. “In particular, Google said that Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query — the whole sentence or conversation or meaning — is taken into account, rather than particular words,” reported Danny Sullivan, a founding editor at Search Engine Land and authority on search engines and search marketing issues. We’ll have to wait and see if the changes pay off.
Google’s role in the demise of privacy and security is the third weakness I’d like to address, and the one that has been exposed since the time Graham wrote his essay. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency have made people more aware and concerned about their privacy, or, more accurately, their lack of it. The revelations reportedly haven’t had a significant impact on Google’s business, but it has been quick to appease its users, most recently by signing a letter, along with other tech giants, supporting two bills, the Surveillance Order Reporting Act of 2013 and the Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013, both of which would allow them more freedom to disclose the frequency and nature of government requests for user data. But would that even matter? Just this week, the Washington Post reported that ““The National Security Agency is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans, according to senior intelligence officials and top-secret documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.” A Google spokesperson said that the company had neither “knowledge of nor participation in this mass collection of web-mail addresses or chat lists by the government.” If that’s true, maybe more people will begin looking for secure and anonymous alternative to Google. These alternatives are already being built.
Below are three companies leading the search engine revolution and excelling in some of the areas Google is struggling in.
Blippex is a search engine launched in July by Max Kossatz and Gerald Bäck, two Austrians residing in Berlin.
Quartz science and technology reporter Chrisopher Mims calls Blippex “the first interesting search engine since Google.” While other major search engines like Microsoft’s Bing simply imitate Google, Blippex is built for its users, by its users, anonymously. It’s run on an algorithm called DwellRank. In contrast to Google’s PageRank, DwellRank bases the relevance of pages on the frequency and amount of time users spend on them, rather than the amount of other sites linking to them. To ensure the anonymity of its users, Blippex only collect URL and time data, not IP addresses. The biggest complaint about the search engine so far is that its search index is limited to pages its users have visited, compared to the trillions of links that have been indexed by Google. Like Google, the index will grow the more it is used.
To prove its commitment to anonymity, Blippex released the first version of a peer-to-peer based anonymizing network built into the Blippex Chrome extension on Friday.
I caught up with Blippex Co-Founder Max Kossatz the day before. Here is what he said:
- What makes DwellRank superior to Google’s PageRank?
- Google’s PageRank is based on how Web pages are linked to one another. This doesn’t mean that anyone is reading the pages. It just measures how the machines are connected! With Blippex, we only index pages that are seen by real people (that’s the reason the logo is a heart, only humans have a heart!), how often they are linked to each other does not count. And then we rank these pages based on the time spent on them, the DwellRank. This is the reason Blippex gives you very different search results, sometimes very good, sometimes very bad, but this will get better the more pages we have indexed. We don’t know yet if it is superior to PageRank, but it’s different. Today, all other search engines are trying to emulate Google search results. That’s not very innovative!
- Where does your inspiration to make Blippex so anonymous and protect the privacy of your users come from?
- Gerald, my co-founder, and I have a long tradition of working with private data and we have a very good understanding of privacy. We think in this post-Snowden time, it is very important to get this right. People have to trust us when they install the extension to contribute to the index, so we have to make everything as protected and transparent as possible. Our goal is to make it even technically impossible for us to collect any private data, so that we will never be able use it in any way.
- How do you respond to users who like the idea of Blippex, but are discouraged by the limited search results compared to Google?
- Quite an easy answer: Install the extension and help us make it better! Of course we get complaints saying, “Blippex sucks. When I search for Facebook, I don’t get Facebook.com as the first result.” Our answer is: “Is that really the measurement of a good search engine? What is search about? Is search only for finding old stuff, or is search about discovering/exploring new things? When Stephen Hawking is searching for the ‘world formula,’ he wants to find the new, interesting stuff, not old stuff!”
Blekko is a search engine launched in November of 2010 with the explicit goal of providing better search results than Google and “offering high quality, spam-free search results rather than blindly favoring keywords.” It breaks searches into categories using slashtags, allowing users to find additional information without refining their search.
“There is an acceleration of spam. We’re cleaning this up … using large-scale human curation” said Rich Skrenta, Blekko’s chief executive in a 2011 Wall Street Journal interview.
Although Blekko’s algorithm, the Dynamic Inference Graph, is similar to Google’s PageRank, it also relies on editorial evaluation to weed out spam and useless links. For any given category, say health or personal finance, Blekko counts on its users to identify who the authorities are on the topic, which links are valuable and which can be removed. Each user can create a profile and personal search categories to improve efficiency.
In June, Blekko raised another $6 million, bringing the total funding to date to $60 million, and announced a new user interface. It also made its tablet search app, Izik (pronounced “Isaac”), available for iPhone and Android devices.