Google dominates search and all the advertising as well as user data driven by queries from across the world. A new company, set up by two Indians who went to IIT and then worked together at Google, wants to change all that by offering a search solution that keeps the user first, because the user is ultimately going to pay for it. Nandagopal Rajan spoke to Sridhar Ramaswamy, Founder & CEO of Neeva, the ad-free, private search which hopes to offer users a viable alternative. Excerpts from a video interview.
How is Neeva different and what is the thought process behind it?
My co-founder Vivek Raghunathan and I worked on search for over a decade at Google. Search is a very often used and very personal function, whether it’s a piece of news or a stock code or something we want to buy or something we are curious about like a strange headache, we turn to search. We felt strongly that this very important function needed to have competition, needed to be reimagined. The ads model has been great for bringing search to everyone on the planet, but over time there is more and more pressure to show ads and more ads and not really what the user wants. So our thesis is that we can create a much better search product, if it focuses solely on what you as a customer needs. And we felt confident enough of our ability to build the technology relatively inexpensively so we could make it available to the whole world. We are starting from the US because we are a small company. Our hope is that this becomes a low-cost service that’s available to everybody. And our bet is that by being customer-paid and customer-first we can create a better product.
How has the transition been moving from the ad side at google to what is the exact opposite, a product which won’t be ad funded? Also, what was the reason behind this switch?
I also ran the travel team at Google, which as you know, does a lot of organic search. Also, I ran the shopping team at Google, which has a very large organic component to it. I also ran search infrastructure for organic search at Google. So it’s actually a broad set of experiences.
Similarly, Vivek was the first tech lead of what is now called the Google Assistant. So we have actually worked on search sort of on both sides.
So is the core idea behind how your search works different from how you did it with Google? Or will the basic technology be similar? Or are you rethinking the technology also?
We have to rethink the core technology. And at some level, things like how you crawl the web, how you index the basics are similar. But really, the secret sauce in Google search is around ranking, is around how the algorithms figures out what the best results for a query are going to be. And this is a space of immense size. I mean, there are literally trillions of queries. And routinely 20-30% of queries typed into a search engine have never been seen before. They are unique. That’s because you know, our imagination has no limits.
So there are a number of techniques that we are rethinking, for example, our early focus on AI and machine learning to create better ranking. Something that’s very unique to Neeva is the ability to bring your personal data and connect it to your Neeva account, so it becomes more of one place where you can search for everything having to do with your life. Today, when you need to find something in your email, you go to one place, maybe Gmail. When you want to find something in files, maybe you go to Dropbox and search. And then you want something from the public web, you go to Google. Our take is that we can provide you with a single box where you enter a query, and you sort of have easy access to everything.
It’s really our business model that facilitates it. People will be worried about connecting their personal data. What we tell them is, we guarantee the product and company are designed so that that personal data is indexed to serve your results, your data is used to serve you better results and for nothing else. This is where things like the business model are so powerful, you are creating a company that from the beginning is customer first and customer only. We are very adamant about making sure this is the one and only revenue source.
Is this fact that people are going to give you access to everything that they are on, like from an iCloud to Google Drive to a Dropbox and emails, contingent on Neeva being a paid service, a service they will trust? Is that the future of the Internet in a way … gradually going to the boutique from the mass?
At one level, we recognise across the world, that having very large tech platforms control so much is just not healthy. As you see recently, unilateral decisions made by individuals can have a huge impact on the world, the tech platforms included. So I think there is now a healthy respect and fear for how large and how influential these companies are.
The second one is, a realisation, that at scale an ad-supported product serves the company that shows you ads, it does not serve you. Certainly not true when things are small, but at the ultimate scale, that is the inevitable direction.
Google needs to keep making more money. There are good people there, that’s not the issue. If you need to make more money, the temptation to show one more ad is just very strong. So there used to be one top ad on Google mobile search, then there were two and then there were three and four… and now five. There’s actually no limit, you can look forward to a world in which you search for something. And the page is full of ads, because that’s how Google makes money.
So I see companies like Neeva as offering an interesting and powerful counterpoint. And giving this choice, this creates a richer internet.
And there are people that will say, for example, that Neeva is an elitist service, because you have to pay for it, and that people might not be able to afford it. I think, first of all, technology makes it possible to scale in ways that are not previously imaginable. So once you are able to build a good service, the marginal cost of supporting more users is close to zero, which means that the benefit of building the service now is available for a larger and larger portion of society. Then I also point out to people that the electricity in your house, the water that flows through your tap, are actually paid services. And likely you’re pretty happy with them, because they’re inexpensive and make all of our lives better. I think of access to information like that, it needs to become a utility. But just like you should not have any doubts about whether using the water in your house is actually helping someone else that you don’t know, you shouldn’t have any doubts that using a search engine helps anybody other than you.
As you move towards a paid model, it’s also a different kind of pressure because you have to always deliver. It would be a very different user to what Google has who would be willing to go up to page five to find that one thing they wanted. But here, they would expect you to serve it as the top result. How do you balance that expectation?
What you are saying is that a paid product needs to be an excellent product. I think that is the motivation. To me, this is the power of competition. If we live in a world where if our product is not good enough, our users are just going to leave and go to another product, maybe even a free product, that is a very strong motivation to create that excellent product.
Yes, it’s a challenge. But many others have made these transitions. Dropbox is a pretty successful company even given the fact that Google Drive is kind of free in the lower tier. So I think more companies thriving will actually produce better products, and honestly, even make the ad-supported free products compete harder, because you can’t now say I’m going to show a page full of ads because my users are going to go for a paid option, because too much is too much. I think it is that kind of pressure.
I also relate this to other things that are going on. For example, as you know, there’s like a big feud all around WhatsApp, and it’s data policies. To me, it is this that points to the need to have options. Big companies decide what is right for me. We need to understand that fundamentally companies exist to further themselves. They do not have societal responsibilities the same way that our governments have.
The WhatsApp example is a key reason why there needs to be meaningful alternatives to important functions. If somebody has 90 per cent market share and they make a large change in their policy, the fact of the matter is, as an Indian citizen, you have no choice. You will kind of have to continue using them because there’s no choice. And this is again, the power of ideas, the power of alternative models… the pressure on us to build a great product and on Google to continue to be a great product and not become a pure ads product. I think that’s the dynamic power of competition.
So how far away are you from actually launching? And is there a roadmap on going to multiple geographies, for instance?
I would call it four to five months to being openly available fully in the US. We are just working on plans for what to do beyond the US. We will likely target English speaking countries, and, you know, Western European countries, because of things like character sets, the nature of the web, and ability to get great talent that can help us with quality. I would say Western Europe, India and Australia are probably like next year. But we are working as hard and as fast as we can. Fortunately we have a great team of engineers, designers and product managers and very good backers. So we are well funded to tackle this problem.
Is there is there an understanding of the ability of people to pay for a product like this, especially in a market like the US?
You can do a lot of work to figure out some of these things. We did a lot of survey work before we started the company. And we have now run surveys on thousands of users and there is definitely a willingness to pay. And the reason I say that is search, like messaging, is one of those daily use products. The average Neeva user runs over a dozen queries every day. And so people just turn to search very, very often to find information. And it is really that usage and stickiness. And people that try Neeva, stay with Neeva. The quality of the search engine is pretty good. It is these things that give us hope. There is a long process by which you demonstrate value to a customer.
Other people have made this transition. I have talked to folks, for example, from companies like Spotify, which, as you know, essentially came to an area that only had pirated music, created a great service, and then a great business based on its ability to create a high value product. So we learn from those people.
Of all the services that we can ask people to pay for, we feel confident that search is one that a certain segment of the population will see value in a superior product. And especially in the current environment of, you know, rampant worry about how large and how influential the tech companies are, we feel we can get enough people that say, I just want a simple alternative, a service that I use that I pay. And that’s it, there’s no more worry about data, there’s no more worry about what else is going on.
Ben Gomes of Google once told me, ultimately they want to take search out of search, and and in a way predict what a user would want to do. Given the kind of product you have in mind and the closed system it would be, aren’t you in a great position to do something like that? Is that even possible?
My co-founder Vivek was the first tech lead for Google Assistant and we see that as a natural follow on. But the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Google searches are things that people type into the phone or into a desktop computer and solving that well is our first goal. Using that to then drive other assistant-like functionality is very natural. We can also do it in a worry-free fashion.
Google too does the assistant, but promptly will come to worries about how do we monetise it? How do we make money off of it. The nice thing about a service like ours is if we have a great recommendation for a book that you should read based on what you have searched for, or a news article that you might otherwise have forgotten, we are happy to send you a notification. And again, you can enjoy that in a worry-free fashion, because it’s not a notification that’s trying to get you to buy some stuff. It’s that simplicity that I think our customers will end up liking. So we do some things in terms of recommendations, but we want to solve search first.
The entire Google experience or search is also corrupted in a way with lots of things. Are people going to be really awed by the experience that you would give? Because it would be very different from what they are used to?
One of the benefits of starting over with the problem is you get to think about things like quality very differently. We do want to take a different lens on to these things. I think the problem where information is easily copyable, is subject to a lot of clickbait, is a direct consequence of the ad-driven model. And the kind of model that we are thinking about, which is customer paid, lets us focus a lot more on what you as a customer needs.
Part of what we want to do as a company is we want to share a portion of our revenue with high quality content creators. My long-term vision of an alternative internet, obviously a big phrase and I don’t say it lightly, is one in which that are some players that act as aggregators, like search, for example. And we support kind of an ecosystem of creators that have great quality information that are not able to maintain a payment relationship with their users themselves. But then, as they grow and become successful, they’re also able to create programmes that have that direct relationship with the customer. So I’m sure you have read that the New York Times, for example, or the past five years, has made a very determined push to get to be supported more by online subscribers, than by advertising. And that’s because there is the realisation that that is much harder to do, but it is also much more stable revenue. So I really see this alternate view of how the internet could evolve where there is this gradation of content creators of various sizes that are supported by companies like Neeva.
If you could tell me a bit about yourself, your upbringing in India
I was born in Trichy in Tamil Nadu. My parents were in Coimbatore briefly and then Kumbakonam before moving to Bangalore when I was about 10 years old. I was there till I went back to study at IIT Madras. I owe a lot to the education that I got in India. My high school math teacher, for example, was incredibly supportive to give me extra books that I could read over the summer. It was really that education and the support both from my parents and my teachers that made me even want to try to get into it. So I went to local schools in Bangalore, and not many people ventured to IIT from the schools. But everybody encouraged me. IIT, of course, was a very different kind of experience, because you are in one place with this amazing set of the smartest people from the country. And that was the foundation of my education. And from there, I came to Brown University in Providence, to get a PhD.
As of now how big is your team? And where are they based?
I have about 45 people. So we are currently completely in the US, especially because of the pandemic, we have decided to kind of expand out from the Valley. So we have some folks that are based in Austin.
Are you also looking at maybe having some operations out of India at some point?
We are open to it. At Google, I have worked with teams across the globe. It starts with leadership that knows and trusts each other. And it also depends very heavily on the willingness of people in headquarters to truly trust their partners. One of the things I do not want to do is to have an office in India or Eastern Europe, where the less sexy work is done. I don’t believe in that model. I think there should be real partner offices with real meaningful functionality. One of my my little dreams is to have a really thriving Centre of Excellence in India, that has met a meaningfully large functionality that they are responsible for.