Will Google ever lose its throne as king of search? You.com is betting on it

You know that a technology’s changed the world when it becomes a verb. It speaks to a level of popularity and ubiquity that goes beyond the wildest dreams of marketeers. “I’ll WhatsApp you.” “I spent the evening YouTubing.” Disrupting any of these aforementioned brand-name products is beyond difficult — it requires a change in the default way that we relate 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.

Richard Socher standing in front of a whiteboard
Salesforce

Socher (pronounced soh-chur) 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.”

laptop with google search open

The most noticeable difference between Google and You comes down to aesthetics and operation. Socher points out that, for years, search engines have all looked kind of the same. They assume that information can be — and, more importantly, should be — arranged in a text-based list, neatly sorted from the number one slot (most useful) downwards. But is this really the best way to arrange information? And, even if it once was, is it still? You, by contrast, leans more heavily into widgets, with a design that owes a bit to the tile layout of kanban boards or social media platforms.

The tiled search results on You include the likes of Amazon pages, news stories, Yelp discoveries, Wikipedia pages, Reddit posts, Medium articles, coding snippets, LinkedIn listings, eBay sales, tweets (which can be retweeted and liked inside the search window), and more. Rather than Google’s sequential list of search results, You offers something more akin to a topographical view of the internet that lets people view the different content islands at once before zooming in to explore the ones that seem 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.”

screenshot of you.com
A screenshot of the You.com search results with “the metaverse” used as an example query

These individual tiles can be upvoted and downvoted in something akin to Reddit. Searches consist firstly of preferred sources, followed by neutral sources, and then downvoted sources. Personalized search is nothing new: Google has been doing it since 2004. But You’s degree of transparent manipulation, the same way you can juggle around the apps that appear on your mobile home screen page, is fresh. In an effort to escape the filter bubble effect — whereby users may be shown slanted search results without realizing the slant — You makes it easier to separate the personalized searches from the objective ones. “That is something that no one else does, really,” Socher said. “To give that kind of agency and control to their users on a search engine.”

You also emphasizes privacy in a big way. Again, this isn’t a wholly unique claim to fame. DuckDuckGo has been leaning into private search for years. But You’s combining of this (the company won’t sell private data and promises an impressive incognito mode) with its new reinvented approach to search could be enough to lure in some users.

Taking on the mighty Google

All of this, of course, brings about the trillion-dollar question: Can You displace Google? Can anything displace Google? This remains to be seen. Search engines have certainly fallen before, replaced by faster, sleeker, better offerings. Remember W3Catalog, World Wide Web Wanderer, WebCrawler, Lycos, Jump Station, Magellan, Excite, Infoseek, Inktomi, Northern Light, Dogpile, Ask Jeeves, and AltaVista? All of these launched, rose to semi-prominence and were then crushed underfoot to varying degrees in the decade before Google established itself. Others like Yahoo and, more recently, Bing, have been successful in their own way — but there’s no doubt which search engine trumps rules the roost.

Logic dictates that, at some point, Google will falter. Empires have a habit of doing that, in the corporate world as much as anywhere else. Just 10 percent of the Fortune 500 companies for the year 1955 have remained on the list in the years since — and more than 89 percent have gone bankrupt, merged with or been acquired by others, or fallen off the Fortune 500 companies list at one time or another. When it comes to search, however, Google is a tricky customer to dislodge.

you.com logo with search bar

The search engine business today is bigger and more profitable than it’s ever been. Google generates piles of cash that would have been unfathomable for the companies that preceded it. Furthermore, through deals with the likes of Apple (Google pays Apple billions of dollars per year to remain the default search engine for iOS), many of us use Google even when we don’t explicitly think we’re using Google. This money means that Google can continue to innovate in search, hoovering up the best minds and, when needed, startups to fortify its castle walls.

You has raised a not-unimpressive $20 million to date. But that’s small potatoes next to the $183 billion that Google parent company Alphabet raked in in revenue in 2020, the overwhelming bulk of which came from advertising.

Socher is under no illusions about the challenge of taking on a Google. However, he also notes that Google’s focus on selling advertising could ultimately hurt its ability to nimbly experiment with new approaches and search layouts. (After all, if someone’s paying to be top of a list, they’re unlikely to be happy if they are suddenly one entry in a much larger grid.) At some point, the need to do pure search conflicts with the moneymaking model of selling ads. “It’s becoming harder and harder to find just naturally relevant content [on Google],” he said.

The start of a journey

It’s still the start of a long journey for You. The search engine has just entered a public beta, opening it up for critique and usage by the general public. There are also obvious ways that You could improve its offering — most notably in making it a touch-friendly interface for mobile.

“The interface is made to go on mobile, and we will very soon make more progress [in that area],” Socher said. “But the experience right now is much, much better on the desktop. We haven’t really put enough … we’re just a small startup. We just haven’t had the time and resources to make it work on different kinds of platforms. [But over] the next couple of weeks and months, we’ll continue to improve the mobile experience.”

One thing’s for certain, though: As tough a challenge as You has ahead of it, it’s got a whole lot of promise. Search is only going to become more important, and its requirements will continue to shift as the internet evolves. You has a smart team behind it, and some big-name investors, including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. Now it just remains to be seen if it can deliver.

Taking on the mighty Google is an incredibly tall order. But then so was challenging Yahoo when Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin set out to build a page-ranking search algorithm for their Ph.D. thesis. And that turned out pretty darn well for them.

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