An early impression of Neeva, the ad-free search engine8 min well spent

In Silicon Valley, there is a saying that goes something like, “The next Facebook won’t look like Facebook.” And, truth beholds, 8 years after its inception, Facebook bought the next Facebook, Instagram. Six years later, around 2017, Instagram “copied” Snapchat’s Stories, which might have become the next Instagram. A year later, ByteDance merged its international version of Douyin with Musical.ly into Tik Tok, which seems to be the defacto new Instagram today. Even though TikTok is not a social network, its traction was concerning enough for Instagram to copy its main feature and launch “Rheels.”

But where is that danger for Google? No other search engine ever became a threat the same way Snapchat, Instagram, or Tik Tok were to Facebook – with one exception: Youtube. Google didn’t just acquire the video platform; it still holds the largest search engine share (source) worldwide. Not even Pinterest was able to grab image search share. Bing develops great features like useful webmaster tools and API Indexing plugins, but Google still dominates.

Where other search engines fail

Part of the reason for Google’s dominance is that Bing, DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, & Co can’t offer a true alternative to Google.

  • Bing tries to just be a better Google
  • Ecosia plants trees
  • DuckDuckGo provides “privacy”

But where is the real differentiation? All three alternatives make money with ads, but you can’t outgoogle Google. Their data network effects, partnerships, and search experience are too strong. Other search engines don’t lead the pack; they provide the same value as Google.

And that’s where Neeva is different.

An early review of Neeva, the ad-free search engine

Last week, I got access to Neeva’s early Alpha version. It’s fully functional, but take my impression with a grain of salt.

Neeva’s look and feel is clean and modern.

Neeva, the ad-free search engine
Neeva, the ad-free search engine

I originally assumed Neeva doesn’t crawl the web and strings together different APIs: search results come from Bing, structured data from Wikipedia, weather.com, IMDB, etc. That turned out not to be true. Neeva does crawl the web to add special units.

Notice that you can find results in the screenshot above on Google and DuckDuckGo as well. Neeva’s point is not to provide even better search results (outGoogling Google) but to provide a better, ad-free experience

Neeva’s SERPs contain the classic elements we already know from Google:

  • Related searches
  • SERP Features like featured snippets, knowledge panel, people also asked boxes, carousels, etc.
  • Vertical search: images, maps, news, videos, etc.

But it’s not all same old same old, Neeva comes with new features that set it apart. One of them is the tab below certain searches that help you narrow the type of site further down.

Filtering results for site-types on Neeva
Filtering results for site-types

You to call up information right in the search results in a knowledge panel-like format. I also like that I can filter the search results for blogs or forums without looking for them in the SERPs.

Repo previews on Neeva
Repo previews

Neeva provides the same preview function for recipes (and probably other structured searches), which reminds me of the preview Google shows in Image Search for recipes.

Recipes on Neeva
Recipes on Neeva

Another novelty is the left-hand panel that houses the most interesting tab: “Spaces”. You can bookmark any search result and add it to a Space on Neeva. Then, you can share it or just use it to compile lists and feeds for yourself.

Neeva Spaces
My Tech Blog Space on Neeva

Under settings, you can pick preferred news sources in the settings and Neeva will try to show them for relevant queries.

Neeva settings with customizable News feed
Neeva settings with customizable News feed

Neeva allows you to connect Google Drive, Dropbox, or Office 365 and displays documents related to your search under the “Personal” tab. I found that mix of a web and personal cloud search engine very clever.

Neeva provides the same tracking restrictions as DuckDuckGo but doesn’t display any ads.

Even Ecosia and DuckDuckGo barely differentiate ads from organic results, following Google’s lead, which increases the number of ad clicks. What might be a neat hack to increase revenue can lead to misleading results and even Phishing. Google & Co use countermeasures like the Quality Score to prevent irrelevant or misleading results from appearing in ads, but they don’t prevent it completely. That’s a problem Neeva doesn’t have.

Monetization as a business strategy

Founder and former Googler Sridhar Ramaswamy said that Neeva would initially be free and then cost less than $10/month. Subscription over ads is, to me, a legit alternative to Google.

Google is the most successful startup in history, with 20% YoY growth on average. That growth comes predominantly from Search Ads, a big risk for Google itself and the organic traffic it sends sites:

One rabbit Google pulled out of the hat was to push the web towards mobile-first.

See, the genius behind mobile-first wasn’t to make the web better for smartphone users but to add another layer to display ads – Google doubled the ad real estate!

But, as life has it, success begets an expectation for more success.

So, what other contenders for revenue streams are there? Well, there’s Google Maps, which seems to slowly show more ads. As it integrates more local businesses, such as bars, restaurants, hotels, and more, it could venture into a bigger revenue stream over time.

Or it could be simply more ads in Google Search, even though I have a feeling that the SERPs are maxed out in terms of ads. However, I don’t really have data to prove that.

It could be the growing commoditization of brands, as it happens in Google Flights and Google Hotel search.

There might also be an ad play behind Discover, Google’s push and discovery feed on the homepage. Google could start showing ads next to “organic results”.

Lastly, image search – the second largest “search engine” after organic search – could drive way more ads than it already does.

Google, the most successful startup in history

That insight led me to write about the nasty side-effects of Google Search traffic about a year ago. The point was not that Google is evil. The point was that Google is a victim of its own success – and monetization model. How do you grow when most of your revenue comes from ads? More ads!

But the world is moving away from Ads. The New York Times and Spotify make way more money from subscription revenue than ads. BuzzFeed moved to mixed-income streams. SaaS is exploding. Even Apple moves to subscriptions.

How successful Neeva will be is yet to be seen, but it has a chance to send sites more organic traffic without being dependent on ads – if it can reach critical mass. As Google seemingly squeezes more ads into the user experience, it opens a wider gap for Neeva. We shall see.