Imagine being in an executive position at a giant corporation where your primary job was to manage and grow advertising revenue via its core product. Now imagine leaving that company to create a similar product, but one that eschews the previous business model and focuses on privacy and user experience instead. That’s exactly what Neeva co-founders Sridhar Ramaswamy and Vivek Raghunathan did with Neeva.
Ramaswamy was SVP of Ads at Google, and Raghunathan was VP of Monetization at YouTube. The two created a new search engine to serve users and only users. What makes Neeva different from Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and other search engines is it’s privacy-first and ad-free. The search experience created by the Neeva product team also sets it apart from the competition.
Without the ability to monetize user data and show advertisements, Neeva must find a different source of revenue. Ramaswamy told Daisuke Wakabayashi at The New York Times that Neeva
plans to make money on subscriptions from users paying for the service. The cost is expected to be less than $10/mo, and Ramaswamy hopes to lower it even more as they gain more subscribers.
Getting consumers to pay for something they’ve become accustomed to receiving for free will likely be a hard sell for most people. The company realizes that they’ll need to offer more than just privacy and no ads to get users to pay for their search engine. They’re betting that by creating a better and more personalized search experience, it will be enough to convince users to ditch Google as their default and primary search engine.
I’ve been testing Neeva since January 2021 and am impressed by what I’ve seen so far. Some of the search experiences are better and more optimized for the user than the ones provided by Google and other search engines. However, I have concerns about the long-term viability of how those experiences get and present their data, which I’ll discuss more throughout this article.
Neeva search start page
The start page for Neeva is fairly basic. It has quick access to settings and features, specifies your location, includes the local weather, and displays recent news. In its current iteration, it’s meant as a dispatch page where you could search, read news, or take some other action.
The news providers on the start page are customizable via Settings. Neeva has three options per news provider.
- Prefer More
- No Preference (the default choice)
- Prefer Less
The Prefer More option does what you would expect; it primarily shows articles from your preferred news publishers. Based on the phrasing used, one assumes that Prefer Less won’t completely exclude certain news sources if the content is relevant and important. If that’s the case, then I think that’s good.
There’s an opportunity for Neeva to leverage news personalization with machine learning (ML) to improve the articles it displays on the start page. I think they could take the start page even further by integrating more third-party data. For example, I could see making Neeva my browser’s start page if it acted as a personalized dashboard that displayed relevant news and had calendar events, Twitter mentions, new email messages, and site metrics from Fathom Analytics.
Making the start page a highly personalized and private digital life hub would make it worth paying for and establish itself as my default browser home page.
The idea of Neeva being a digital life hub isn’t far-fetched because they already support connecting third-party data to your account. They currently support the following connections:
If there is relevant data from the third-party connections, it appears first in search results.
You can also choose the Personal option to only display results from third-party connections.
Like Apple’s Spotlight, there is a lot of utility in quickly searching multiple data sources in one location. The app FYI is a good example of a service that makes it possible to find files across multiple services quickly. Neeva is essentially doing the same thing, but perhaps even better. And if they add several more third-party integrations, I think the Personal search feature will help make Neeva’s subscription fee worth it.
Neeva My Business
Searching businesses is decent and somewhat familiar to what you would see on Google and other search engines.
If you expand to the map view, you’ll discover that they’re using Google Maps. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and as long as Google is okay with it, why not.
Searching for local businesses isn’t perfect, though. I searched for my favorite sushi restaurant, which has done whatever the opposite of SEO is. Their website never appeared in the search results, but Neeva did provide the option to search on DuckDuckGo and Google.
Clicking on Google opens a new tab with results from Google Search. Thanks to Google My Business, the restaurant had a Business Profile linked to the correct website.
Neeva doesn’t appear to have an option like Google My Business yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they’re already working on one. I think some version of that will be crucial to their success.
Neeva has knowledge panels, and they look almost identical to Google’s knowledge panels. The biggest difference is that there isn’t an option to claim the knowledge panel.
One of my favorite features of Neeva is how it returns results for code-related searches and categorizes each site.
Neeva assigns the following categories to code-related sites:
- Official Documents
- Programming Sites
- Code Repositories
Results can be filtered by category, and most search snippets contain rich results that drill down into interactive knowledge panels.
Neeva has put a significant amount of effort into helping its users research products. When you search for a product, the first results card says Expert Recommended, Products chosen by experts, not advertisers.
It displays product details from familiar publishers, and clicking on a result will display a knowledge panel with more details. While this user experience is informative and makes it so you don’t have to leave the search result page, it copies most of the relevant information from the publisher’s reviews. For example, in the CNET review for Best VPNs Services of 2021, the user can click on different VPN services, read the description, pros and cons, and other details without ever needing to visit the CNET article. Links to the publisher’s articles are also deemphasized and typically buried in the knowledge panels.
I think the way the shopping experience works now will create legal issues related to copyright with publishers, and they will likely block them from indexing and using their content.
Publishers make money from advertising and affiliate links, and this will likely be seen as content theft. This is a concern I communicated to Neeva when I first gained access to it in January, and they are aware of those concerns and plan to address them.
Neeva approaches recipes similar to product-related searches. When you search for recipes, they provide the full ingredients and instructions, making it completely unnecessary to visit the publisher’s site. Like with product reviews, I think publishers will see this as content theft because it takes away their ability to monetize it.
On February 28, 2021, Recipeasly launched a site that collects recipes with the promise of no ads or life stories. That same day, Recipeasly received fierce backlash online and was accused of content theft. The mishap received international media attention, and they were forced to shut down the site the day it launched.
Neeva gets recipes from the same type of publishers Recipeasly did and returns and displays the same information without ads or life stories. I’m concerned that Neeva may experience the same backlash if something doesn’t change by the time they make the service widely available to the public.
Overall impression of Neeva
There’s a lot to like about Neeva and it’s the best search engine UX I’ve ever used.
Neeva feels more like an app than a search engine, and with more third-party integrations, I could see it becoming both a start page and a digital life hub. I especially like how it handles code-related searches.
General search results are good, but like DuckDuckGo, they still aren’t the same quality as Google’s organic results. I think they realize that which is why they include a “Find elsewhere” option high up on the first page of each search result that searches DuckDuckGo or Google.
Neeva’s biggest challenge will be with some of the features that set them apart. They’ve created an amazing experience for researching products and finding recipes, but I remain concerned about how publishers will react to it in its current form.
I look forward to seeing how the Neeva continues to iterate and solve problems. It’s certainly shaping up to be a search engine I would be willing to pay for.
Jon is the founder and Managing Editor of Coywolf. He has over 25 years of experience in web development, SaaS, internet strategy, digital marketing, and entrepreneurship. Follow @henshaw