When a technology becomes a verb, you know it has altered the world. It attests to a level of popularity and ubiquity that exceeds marketers’ greatest ambitions. “I’ll send you a WhatsApp.” “I spent the evening watching YouTube videos.” Disrupting any of the aforementioned brand-name products is exceedingly tough – it necessitates a shift in our default relationship to some standard action.
“To Google” is a verb — and a powerful one. In Google’s own words, its reason for being is no less than to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
And Richard Socher wants to disrupt it.
Socher is the former chief scientist of Salesforce, one of the world’s premier customer relationship management platforms and makers of enormously successful enterprise apps. During his career, he has started and sold the A.I. company MetaMind, and been published broadly in fields ranging from computer vision to machine translation to summarization within natural language processing. His new search engine — You.com — seeks to challenge the single gatekeeper of search that is Google. He’s not about to let a pesky thing like a near-$2 trillion giant stop him, either. Even if it is a gosh-darned verb.
“My first thought was, you know, it was a verb ‘to Skype,’” Socher told Digital Trends at the start of a video call to showcase You in action. “And you know what we’re [speaking] on right now? Not Skype.”
A different approach to search
The idea driving You is to be the “not Skype” to Google’s Skype. The contention of Socher and co-founder Bryan McCann is that the world is at an inflection point when it comes to search. The company’s publicity materials drive this claim home: “Today, a single gatekeeper controls nearly 90% of the search market, dictating everything you see. The advertising and SEO biases of current search engines result in a lack of control over what people read, watch, research, eat, and buy. All of this makes people an object of artificial intelligence algorithms designed to monetize them rather than utilizing technology to harness the world’s information in relevant ways that build trust and confidence with every search.”
The most visible distinction between Google and You is in terms of appearance and operation. Socher observes that search engines have all had a similar appearance for many years. They presume that information can — and, more significantly, should — be organized in a text-based list, neatly sorted from the top (most useful) position down. Is this, however, the ideal method to organize information? And, if it was once, is it still? You, on the other hand, lean heavily on widgets, with a design that resembles the tile arrangement of kanban boards or social networking sites.
Amazon sites, news headlines, Yelp findings, Wikipedia pages, Reddit posts, Medium articles, coding snippets, LinkedIn listings, eBay sales, tweets (which may be retweeted and liked inside the search window), and more are among the tiles search results on You. Rather with Google’s linear list of search results, You provides a topographical perspective of the internet, allowing users to see all of the content islands at once before zooming in to explore the ones that are relevant.
“Can You displace Google? Can anything displace Google? This remains to be seen.”
“It actually took us a lot of iterations and thinking about design constraints and thinking about mobile,” Socher said. “When you think about Instagram and TikTok, people are very used to swiping left, right, and up and down. If you’re on Instagram, you swipe left to see more pictures of that story. Then, if you swipe down, you see the next story. We don’t want to have this massive engagement track of social networks. We want to help you search less and do more. Get things done, save your time, and summarize the web for you. But these are still very convenient ways to interact with content and are very intuitive — especially to younger generations.”
Taking on the mighty Google
All of this raises the trillion-dollar question: Can You Displace Google? Can anything dethrone Google? This will have to wait and see. Search engines have undoubtedly fallen before, only to be replaced by faster, sleeker, and better alternatives. W3Catalog, World Wide Web Wanderer, WebCrawler, Lycos, Jump Station, Magellan, Excite, Infoseek, Inktomi, Northern Light, Dogpile, Ask Jeeves, and AltaVista are all names that come to mind. All of these were launched, climbed to semi-prominence, and were then crushed underfoot to varied degrees in the decade preceding Google’s establishment. Others, including as Yahoo and, more lately, Bing, have been successful in their own right — but there’s little mistake about whose search engine reigns supreme.
Logic suggests that Google will fall at some time. Empires have a habit of doing this, both in the corporate sphere and beyond. Only 10% of the Fortune 500 firms from 1955 have remained on the list in the years thereafter – while more than 89 percent have gone bankrupt, merged with or been purchased by another, or dropped off the list at some point. However, when it comes to search, Google is a difficult customer to oust.
The search engine industry is now larger and more profitable than it has ever been. Google earns sums of money that were incomprehensible for the corporations that came before it. Furthermore, through agreements with companies like Apple (Google pays Apple billions of dollars every year to stay the default search engine for iOS), many of us use Google even when we don’t realize it. This funding allows Google to continue to innovate in search by attracting the brightest minds and, where necessary, startups to build its castle walls.
You’ve only raised a measly $20 million thus far. But that pales in comparison to Google parent firm Alphabet’s $183 billion in revenue in 2020, the vast majority of which came from advertising.
Socher is well aware of the difficulty of competing with Google. However, he cautions that Google’s emphasis on selling advertising may eventually limit its capacity to experiment with different ideas and search layouts. (After all, if someone pays to be at the top of a list, they’re unlikely to be pleased if they suddenly find themselves one entry in a much larger grid.) At some point, the necessity for pure search clashes with the revenue-generating mechanism of selling adverts. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find naturally related information [on Google],” he remarked.
The start of a journey
You are still at the beginning of a long journey. The search engine has recently entered public beta, allowing the entire public to evaluate and use it. There are also clear ways in which You could improve its services, most notably by making it a touch-friendly mobile interface.
“The interface is designed to be mobile, and we will make further progress [in that area] very soon,” Socher added. “However, the PC experience is currently far superior. We haven’t put forth enough effort… we’re simply a small startup. We simply didn’t have the time or resources to make it operate on a variety of platforms. [However,] we will continue to improve the mobile experience in the next weeks and months.”
But one thing is certain: as difficult as the task ahead of You is, it holds a lot of promise. Search will only become more vital, and its requirements will vary as the internet evolves. You have a clever staff working for you, as well as some big-name investors, including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. It now remains to be seen whether it can deliver.
Taking on the powerful Google is a very difficult task. But then, when Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin set out to design a page-ranking search algorithm for their Ph.D. thesis, they were also attacking Yahoo. And it worked out very well for them.