Alternative search engine Cuil has Google in its sights.
MENLO PARK, Calif. — Ironic? It’s certainly a lot easier to find hot Web
startup Cuil on the Web than the company
behind it. Nestled off a side road in this Silicon Valley suburb, the latest
Google challenger is very much still in startup mode, not even bothering to
buy a sign for the outside of its headquarters.
As it happens, the 30-person firm took over the offices of something
called The Institute for Research on Learning. When Cuil (pronounced “cool”)
took over, it simply obscured part of the sign out front so it now reads
The Institute for Search.
“We thought we’d have a little fun with that,” Vince Sollitto, who heads
Cuil’s public relations efforts, told InternetNews.com. Sollitto has
firsthand experience seeing a tech startup go from nifty idea to industry
juggernaut having previously worked for PayPal.
To hear Anna Patterson, Cuil’s president and co-founder, tell it, Sollitto
did almost too good a job in gaining big exposure in national media for
Cuil’s stealth rollout July 28.
“We planned to come out in August, thinking it would be a slow news
cycle we’d have time to iron out any problems and pick up traffic in
September,” Patterson told InternetNews.com. “We thought we knew what
to expect, but it was nothing like that. It was more like an iPhone
launch than something from a 30-person company.”
Indeed, Cuil’s launch got big play in The New York Times, Reuters
and elsewhere. The articles highlighted the tech cred of the company
founders (including CEO Tom Costello, Patterson’s husband) and the sizzle of
ex-Googlers trying to outdo their former employer. But then reports in the
tech press and blogosphere turned nasty. The site was down or inaccessible,
and the results didn’t measure up to Google and others. In a word, the
launch went from PR heaven to hell in the space of a few days.
Patterson said two main issues arose that the company hadn’t anticipated.
First was the huge amount of traffic the first week and a bug in its
caching system that incorrectly turned users away with no results. She said
those issues have been resolved.
“Search is a slow growth business, and we’re committed for the long haul,”
And where does the company expect to be in five years? “In two years
we’ll be able to pretty well predict where we’ll be in five,” Patterson said.
“Right now we’re just a few weeks in.”
Next page: What’s cool about Cuil
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What’s cool about Cuil
While the site issues generated plenty of negative publicity initially,
Patterson insists Cuil is getting plenty of love from users. “We have an
e-mail feedback list, which is usually the place people go to send negative
comments, but our feedback’s been more like 60 percent positive,” she said.
As an example, she sites a user who said she’d been searching online for a
wedding dress for two months and found what she was looking for right away
IDC analyst Sue Feldman credits Cuil for bringing new ideas to the search
table. “I like the interface,” she told InternetNews.com. “The drop-down menu that offers related choices similar to Yahoo and the type-ahead feature is really useful,” she said.
Type ahead anticipates what you’re searching for
so, for example, as you type in “John Mc,” a drop-down menu presents you
with your likely search term, “John McCain,” and you can just click that for
results. The drop-down follows McCain with other likely searches, John
McGloughlin, John McEnroe, and so on. Yahoo has a similar feature.
The site then presents results in detailed boxes. A search for “routers” for
example, presents a link and capsule summary of products by Netgear (NASDAQ: NTGR), Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO)
and others. And tabs on the results page take you to further relevant
results with such labels as “Cisco Routers,” “Wireless Routers” and “CNC
In a recent search, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) reported 37,400,00 results for “routers,” while Cuil chimed in with 16,098,892.
Patterson claimed other search sites like Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) have been
too focused on matching Google to the point that they think there’s
something wrong if their results aren’t the same. “What we’re trying to do
is surface alternative content and not have one thing overpower everything
else,” she said.
As examples, she said WebMD (NASDAQ: WBMD) and the Internet movies database IMDb come up too frequently for searches on medical and celebrity related topics.
Another favorite example is Harry Potter. Where Google’s top results feature
“official” Harry Potter sites along with a Wikipedia reference, Cuil also
features readily accessible links to independent fan sites such as MuggleNet.
Patterson said she believes Cuil’s index of 120 billion pages is
substantially higher than Google’s. In a statement, Sollitto said Cuil
estimates Google’s index to be about a third the size at about 40 billion
pages based on “previous direct knowledge, reports, and tests.”
Google hasn’t publicly stated how big its index is. In a blog
post the company said it reached the 1 billion mark in 2000. More
recently, the blog post said Google had hit a milestone in finding new
content, processing an astounding 1 trillion unique URLs on the Web at
once. Because many of those Web pages are similar, Google said it doesn’t
index them all.
Asked about Cuil’s launch, Google issued the following the statement: “We welcome competition that stimulates innovation and provides users
with more choice. Having great competitors is a huge benefit to us and
everyone in the search space — it makes us all work harder, and at the end
of the day our users benefit from that.”
Next page: The next big hit?
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The next big hit?
Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin has seen many a Silicon Valley startup flame out, but only a precious few reach the status of a Google or
eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY).
“I tried Culi, and you can see it’s a work in progess,” Bajarin told InternetNews.com. “The reason you don’t write something like this off is I had the same reaction when Yahoo first came out and Google.” He notes their were more popular search sites at the time, notably Altavista and Excite, but then Google came out with a more advanced, contextual ad system, and the company took off.
“Ultimately, Cuil will have to show why it’s different than Google
either in the richness of search results or enhancements, and right now that
part isn’t that clear to me, Bajarin said. “But they have some very smart people over there.”
Cuil can claim an edge over Google when it comes to online privacy. Since its search engine ranks pages based on content instead of number of clicks, Cuil says
personal data collection is unnecessary and the personal search history of
its users always remains private.
For now, Cuil doesn’t feature ads. Patterson said the company has some
“unique ideas” on how it might offer ads, but has also been approached by
companies looking to partner with it on an ad system.
Analyst Feldman agrees that basic search has reached a commodity status.
“I can point to many services that are superior to Google,” she said. “A lot
of what’s going on now is about buzz, marketing, mindshare and changing
people’s habits, Feldman explained. “The barriers are low, it’s easy to try to know things, but changing people’s habits is not so easy.”
She said Cuil was smart to come out with a big index. “The size of the
index is important because you aren’t going to find something that’s not
there,” she said.
Patterson said Cuil works more efficiently because it groups Web pages by
content. Ninety to 95 percent of our queries are answered by one machine,”
she said. “We have phenomenal data mining.”
Patterson said she has much fondness for her former colleagues at Google
but left to start with a clean slate and the chance to implement new ideas.
“Google is one of those tools where when it doesn’t work you blame yourself
and think you didn’t type in the right thing.”
As an example, she notes a search for “Hertz” on Google provides an
initial list of sites related to Hertz rental cars. On Cuil you get similar
results up top along with a summary and link to the Hertz Foundation for
applied science fellowships.
Google’s mission statement is to “organize the world’s information and
make it universally accessible and useful.” Cuil has a slightly different
take on that idea. “We’re trying to help you find the right thing,” Patterson said.
And for the record, Cuil should be able to afford a pretty decent sign if
it ever feels the need. According to VentureBeat Cuil’s raised $33 million
from investors Madrone Capital Partners, Tugboat Ventures and Greylock