Building a Better Search Engine: Lessons From Neeva’s CEO via @sejournal, @MattGSouthern

After helping to grow Google’s advertising business for over 15 years, Sridhar Ramaswamy began to feel Google’s dependence on ads was limiting the quality of search results.

Determined to prove he could achieve a better search experience without ads, Ramaswamy co-founded and launched Neeva in 2019.

As the CEO of his own search company, Ramaswamy is accountable to the users of his product who pay a monthly subscription to access Neeva.

“No ads” means Neeva doesn’t have an incentive to collect data on its users, making it the only search engine on the market that’s both ad-free with a privacy option.

Ramaswamy is currently on the conference circuit raising awareness about Neeva, and we managed to catch up with him at Collision last week in Toronto.

We profiled Neeva once before and welcomed Ramaswamy as a guest on the Search Engine Journal Show in December.

However, each time we only scratched the surface. Now, we want to dig deeper.

So, what makes Neeva different from the other companies — and what makes Neeva a viable alternative to Google and Bing?

What Are Neeva’s Core Values?

Many companies enter the market making lofty claims of how they’ll do right by users. Even Google once had “don’t be evil” written into its code of conduct: a promise to which some critics argue it hasn’t lived up. Google has de-emphasized “Don’t be evil” in its code of conduct, though it was never removed.

In 2021, Google was sued by three former employees over its “Don’t be evil” motto. They allege that failure to live up to the motto is the equivalent of a breach of contract.

To better understand how Neeva will continue delivering a product that puts users’ needs first, I asked Ramaswamy what Neeva’s core values are.

“It’s not something we have published, but this is something I’ve talked about a lot with Vivek [Raghunathan, co-founder of Neeva], and I feel good about saying it,” Ramaswamy began. “At our core, we think that, as a company, we want to make technology serve people.”

“I think many other technology companies, especially in the last 25, have turned rather exploitative,” he continued. “I think the ad model exemplifies this. Basically, if I can convince you and get you hooked on my product, I can pretty much do anything.”

“It’s Technology Serving People”

Make no mistake: Neeva is a for-profit organization, though Ramaswamy says its subscription-based revenue model is designed to serve people rather than advertisers.

“Yes, companies are for-profit, but I think if you set up your values to be aligned with your user, to be aligned with your customer, you’ll always serve them,” he said. “To me, that part is important. If you had to say, ‘Hey, what exemplifies what you do?’ It’s technology serving people. This is why we do things like offer a flat price for the search utility you get from us.”

“Technology At Scale Is Quite Inexpensive”

Many companies within the sector lead consumers to believe scaling technology is expensive, which is how some justify charging higher fees, for instance, as they grow.

It doesn’t have to be that way, Ramaswamy says, as he believes the cost of technology at scale is overblown.

“It’s our belief that technology at scale is actually quite inexpensive,” he noted. “That’s the magic of technology, but right now, the way all of these companies are structured — as they scale, they squeeze more money from you.”

“It’s not like you’re getting more value, though obviously there are exceptions,” Ramaswamy continued. “But it’s really back to the basics of how you create products that delight people. And to me, that’s an honorable living.”

Building a Better Search Engine: Lessons From Neeva’s CEOFrom left to right: Brittany Kaiser, Own Your Data; Sridhar Ramaswamy, Neeva; Ashley Gold, Axios.Building a Better Search Engine: Lessons From Neeva’s CEO

What Does Neeva Do To ‘Serve People’?

Neeva’s definition of ‘technology serving people’ is exemplified by its feedback system.

Roughly 20% of the Neeva team is tasked solely with listening to customer feedback and using it to shape the product experience.

On the other hand, many criticize Google for not giving users what they want out of a search experience.

I asked Ramaswamy if he could give examples of specific customer feedback that helped shape Neeva into what it is today.

“There’s tons of feedback that comes to us. Sometimes we feel bad about not being about to take care of all of it,” he started. “But to give an example: We did a currency converter because, believe it or not, it was a top request. Initially, I did not understand this feedback. I was like, ‘Really? It’s that hard for you to click on a link and then type in your numbers and get your currency converted?”

“But then,” Ramaswamy said, “I realized a larger truth about how people think about the internet.”

“People Fear Clicking On Links”

Neeva was initially against going the Google route of delivering content directly in the SERPs, but has had to make some concessions.

Through listening to customer feedback, the Neeva team learned there’s a real apprehension toward clicking on links in search results.

“Clicking on a link has now become an adversarial task. People actually fear clicking on links because they don’t know what’s on the other side,” Ramaswamy said. “Is it going to be a pop-up? Is it going to tell you that your computer has a virus? Is it something else? That’s the reason why we put [a currency converter] right into the search engine. So that’s one example.”

Another perk offered to Neeva subscribers is access to a Slack channel where customers can engage in group discussions with developers.

“A lot of people said, ‘We want to be able to offer feedback to [improve] your search results,’” Ramaswamy said. “So we built a community feedback feature that’s released to some people; it’s not released to everybody.”

The way it works, he explained, is users “can say, ‘Hey, this result is not relevant.’ Or, ‘This result is the top result for this query.’”

“This list sort of goes on and on,” Ramaswamy said. “Customers are really a source of lots of ideas.”

Building a Better Search Engine: Lessons From Neeva’s CEOFrom left to right: Brittany Kaiser, Own Your Data; Sridhar Ramaswamy, Neeva; Ashley Gold, Axios.Building a Better Search Engine: Lessons From Neeva’s CEO

Neeva Is A Customer-Guided Product

At Collision, Ramaswamy described what he eventually aims to accomplish with Neeva, and how it differs from the goals of larger search engines like Google.

After speaking with him, I asked if he could clarify what he meant by wanting to “let society figure out” what to do with Neeva.

“I spoke about it more in the spirit of: Google spends a billion, makes a hundred billion. My thing was more: We want to make a couple of billion and let society figure out what it wants to do with the service,” Ramaswamy explained. “It’s more of a general argument around not captive capitalism, but competitive capitalism.”

“The beautiful thing about technology is creating a product for 100 million people is not wildly different from creating a product for a billion people,” he continued. “That’s the magic of scale and technology.”

Being paid for by the people who use it gives Neeva unique flexibility regarding future growth.

Users don’t have as much influence over a product like Google Search, considering they typically don’t pay to use it.

Although even for a free product, Ramasamy argues that Google could be doing much more to give users value.

“My point was a customer-paid product makes it much easier for us to release the product to the whole world [and] still run a profitable company, but not at the kind of obscene scale that I see Facebook or Google operating,” he said. “People always say …  ‘Well, Google gives me free Gmail. Will they stop giving it?’ And my rough answer is: Well, I’m sure, with 100 billion dollars, a bunch of us are going to make really good decisions about how to use that money.”

Ramaswamy said that users “don’t need a monopolist to make that decision and decide they want to give you free Gmail. We don’t need charity from rich companies in order to do this; we need competition, so more of the money that is being spent on this comes to us.”

Building a Better Search Engine: Lessons From Neeva’s CEOFrom left to right: Brittany Kaiser, Own Your Data; Sridhar Ramaswamy, Neeva; Ashley Gold, Axios.Building a Better Search Engine: Lessons From Neeva’s CEO

Will Neeva Keep Its Privacy Promises?

DuckDuckGo, another search engine that touts privacy as its key selling point, was recently a source of controversy after it was discovered to be passing along a minor amount of data to Microsoft.

That stemmed from the deal DuckDuckGo has to use Bing’s search index.

I asked Ramasamy what measures Neeva has in place to keep its zero data collection promises.

“Not serving ads is the biggest measure we have in place. And, we are building our own index,” he said, adding that the company is actively “writing down human ratings and getting data back.”

“We truly want to create a differentiated product,” Ramasamy emphasized. “We started with using the Bing API for search [but] in many ways, I think we would have been better off investing in search from day one. We are a product company, and we want to become a much better search engine. That’s the big differentiator.”

“We’re Making Foundational Investments In Search”

In addition to keeping Neeva ad-free, it will be able to maintain its zero-data promise by building its own search index.

DuckDuckGo, for example, ran into trouble because it’s wholly dependent on Microsoft for search results. Ramasamy says Neeva is the only company outside Google and Bing crawling and indexing the web.

That claim is backed up by an October 2020 report on digital competition by the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust. The report states:

“The high cost of maintaining a fresh index, and the decision by many large webpages to block most crawlers, significantly limits new search engine entrants. Today, the only English-language search engines that maintain their own comprehensive webpage index are Google and Bing.”

He acknowledged that, in response, many ask, “What’s the big deal? What difference does it make?”

“It lets us do things like creating a much better shopping experience,” Ramasamy explained, noting that, for instance, Neeva “launched Reddit links in search results … because we work with Reddit to get their index. So we have an index of all the web pages they’re serving.”

Ramasamy said that users can receive better-quality results for such queries as, “What are the most interesting Reddit posts that correspond to this query?”

Neeva can “launch features like that, because we’re making foundational investments in search; pretty much the only company outside of Google and Microsoft to be doing this.”

“We increasingly use Bing as a fallback when we cannot answer queries,” Ramasamy acknowledged. However, he said, “Over time, our aspiration is to be able to do more and more of the search results ourselves.”

Neeva’s Sole Focus Is Traditional Web Content (For Now)

With people’s search behavior turning more toward short videos, I asked Ramaswamy if Neeva has any plans to index content like Web Stories or TikTok videos.

For now, Neeva’s sole focus is to solve search for text-based web content.

“Solving for search, especially things like spoken search, is enough of a large problem that we have not quite gone there,” Ramaswamy said. “We have working arrangements. We have partnerships with companies like Twitter and companies like Reddit to better surface their content.

Twitter, he pointed out, “Has a lot of real-time information. So we’re focused on things like that right now and less on video. That would be a fun project to do.”

Neeva’s Greatest Challenge Is Awareness

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Ramaswamy: What’s the most significant hurdle for Neeva to overcome on its journey toward mass adoption?

Ramaswamy’s answer: “It really is about competition.”

The product, he said, is not the issue.

“We have a great product. Compared to ad-supported options … the free Neeva search engine is infinitely better,” Ramaswamy explained. “The place where we struggle is getting the word out, getting people to know us as an option, and getting people to set us as the default search in Safari, which is impossible.

“Demand More Choice”

As Ramaswamy explained, there’s no incentive for a company like Google to innovate if it doesn’t have any challengers.

Companies tend to improve their products when faced with more robust competition. But the only way for more competitors to enter the search market is for consumers to demand more options.

“To me, this is the biggest ask that I would have,” Ramaswamy said, “is to demand more choice, because competition produces better products.”

In turn, he said, “That competition creates better products for us. An incumbent that is doing very well has no incentive to innovate [or] to disrupt.”

Conversely, over at Neeva, “We have nothing to lose,” Ramaswamy told me. “We’re going to swing for the fences [and make it] easier for people to switch, for them to try Neeva, for them to decide for themselves if they want it or not.”

What’s Next For Neeva?

Before parting ways, I had to ask what we could expect next from Neeva.

“There’s a lot I’ve learned from Google My Business in terms of local businesses – even in terms of Search Console – that I feel confident we can do better,” Ramaswamy said, adding that “GMB, as you know, is a real problem for lots of people. Especially agencies that want to update information for a bunch of companies that they work with.”

The hope, Ramaswamy said, is that “we’ll have better tools. But not yet.”