For most of us the entry door to the Internet is Google search, either as a homepage, search in a browser or smartphone. Alphabet is doing a good job of offering the best service for free and if it is threatened - it pays to keep a monopoly on search. Google for over a decade is the search engine of choice for over 90% of people globally. For most people out there this is the Internet.
With the recent advent of technology done by a combination of open-source projects/frameworks, easy access to VC money, and no need to invest in dedicated hardware, the search engine market is not immune to disruption (albeit still small). In the last 3 years, we got some new players on the market, let's take a look.
Things I won't talk about
I will also skip over Open Web Index initiative (also known as European Search Index) as I don't believe in this as the main source for new mass customer web search innovation. Too little, too late also not mass product but more of infrastructure layer for others. It makes some sense for research studies, but I don't see it scaling beyond that. If you are interested anyway, a good starting point is its author article.
Founded in 2020, since 2021 available as a public beta.
Created by ex-Salesforce Chief Scientist Richard Socher.
A real all-around competitor to Google with claimed better NLP of searches, not selling your data to advertisers and AI engine that brings most relevant searches. This search engine throws some serious punches, especially considering it is very early to the game (started in 2020, and since 2021 it is available as a public beta).
For me it also has one more advantage - a dedicated feature to search through code-related searches - you can directly try it code.you.com , personally I'm not sold on this* but creating a real competitor to Google-behemoth in 2 years is mind-boggling and gives serious hope that we can get innovation in this sector.
*I'm not 100% sold on a bit chaotic UX, noticeably slow results, and hit-or-miss non-English searches. All this seems to be fixable. However, I'm not sure if removing targeted ads based on your ongoing search is a good call for the company, as most users don't mind this and it is a win-win in many cases.
Free for the first 3 months, later 5 USD/mo.
Founded in 2019 by ex-Googlers (Ads and YouTube).
A highlight of this engine apart from the ad-free experience is being able to connect your private Gmail, Slack, Dropbox, GDrive... as sources to also search through.
I didn't have a chance to try it as there is a waitlist and seems to be limited to some regions (ex. USA) but some reviews are mentioning a lack in UX and shopping searches, relatively expensive, and required sign-up.
Personally, I would be hesitant to connect my all private data to any 3rd party company. On the other hand, some more power users are finding Neeva really decent praising the lack of any ads and configurability of sources (very detailed review).
Privacy-focused. Recently indexed over 4.5 billion pages, is a perfect example where number doesn't matter as search results in my brief testing were just poor(example). I don't see any major differentiator or reason to recommend it.
Free (with limits) or 10 USD/mo.
Public beta started in 2021, founded by Vladimir Prelovac (ex-GoDaddy).
What is interesting it went public on Reddit and not a full-blown-out marketing push.
At this moment for sure I don't feel like paying for it as results are often a miss, and force you directly to use another search engine. There is sometimes a big gap in the quality of results between the first (ok-ish) and the rest. I don't have high UX demands for those products as they are early in their way but currently the results are a wall of text and could use at least some formatting.
Planet-friendly search engines
It comes a bit unexpected fro me but apparently there is a whole niche of eco-searche engines, I won't go into big details here but some players are: Lilo (collects 💰), Ecosia (plants 🌲🌳), SearchScene (closed in 2021).
Most notable examples of local clones of whole Google are Yandex (Russia) and Baidu (China). In China Google search market share is at 3.88% where Baidu has over 70%, surprising is Bing with 11% in chineese market.
A bit in this local category is Huawei's Petal Search, it works in other languages, results or decent but marketing is just not here. I'm not sure if this is a prime focus for Huawei or just one of gazillion of their products.
Decision engine - Oogway
It was initially named Willow (November 2021), and in January 2022 rebranded to Oogway. It currently works as adding your decision, options and criteria. Then it asks you to evaluate each option. The idea is nice however the magic of AI/ML/engine is missing currently, nice to keep eye on this. Also you can take a look at feed of decisions by others.
Build on top
Why pump money to create a whole new wheel if you can build on top of Google search - Heyday is doing exactly that and more. Tool by Samiur Rahman that allows you to create a knowledge database almost silently in the background and resurface those web pages that are relevant at the moment or in the context of a new search. Seems like a great tool for those who are doing long research and are struggling with tons of tabs and bookmarks.
Good place to read more on search engines:
What is here for us?
For me to fully switch myself to new search engine I need a feeling - this is a best results I can get. If I have strong suspection I will be better off with Google... I'm switching and most likely staying there. What is funny, there is almost no barrier to switch over products for user. Which brings us to some showerthoughts on this:
Personalization of Google results
I belive to stay competitive as well create some barriers for switching between search engines Google will start strongly personalizing its search results. It might add some features of competitors - ex. connecting GDrive to search (as in Neeva), or using more context related to sessions - If I'm writing article on search engines probably suggesting those results in some period of time makes sense. Some of it is already ongoing but I belive it will start be more prominent as a direct user-facing feature.
Google Assistant all the things
Pushing users to more feature-reach products more likely increases role of Google Assistant than "just" Search. We can already see it on Android as it is Assistant that is central search engine, more features, more integrations, more user context embedded in interaction. We can even skip voice as input for now and change Google.com to Google Assistant one day.
This will allow Google in one move to change search-engine game and basically create a blue ocean for them, with very little competition (Alexa and Siri but it would take years even them), as well easily push new usecases and features.
Some shower-thoughts bulletpoints
- Web-wide search is diminishing functionality with more mature web.
You don't look for "apartments in Croatia", you probably directly go to Booking.com/Airbnb/some other sites of personal choice. I see this myself as I use less and less search myself over the years.
- More and more content is not indexed in any web search (TikTok, podcasts, movies...).
- We consume more and more of content as push to us (ex. recommendations on YouTube) than pull (we look for XYZ) - recommendations engines are the new king instead of search engines.
- It is about execution and quality as anybody can build their own search engine.
- Ads personalised based on search query are not evil.
Clue is to keep them anonymased so they cannot be linked to particular user.
- Search functionality is incredibly interesting from engineering point of view (speed vs. load capability vs. caching and which directly corresponds to how much personalization you have).
- Quantity of indexed pages is secondary for even new players (best example is Mojeek with 4.5 bln pages and poor results in my testing).
- Apple web search is only matter of time (same it was with Maps).
This will be interesting market for next couple of years as it looks like there is new momentum in this sector. If Google could in just 5 years overtake Internet Explorer as a default browser where is bigger barrier to try new product... maybe new Internet change in power of search engines will be even faster?