Cuil vs. Google: Can David Beat Goliath?

Marred by problems on launch day, analysts question whether Cuil can compete.


July 29, 2008 — -- Marred by page errors and intermittant outages when it launched on Monday, a new search engine billing itself as a wider-reaching, more intuitive Google may have trouble competing with established Silicon Valley search goliaths, analysts said.

Co-founded by Anna Patterson, an engineer who architected the latest version of Google's search engine in 2006, (cuil is pronounced "cool") claims it is superior in several ways.

First and foremost, the site claims to search nearly three times more Web pages -- about 121 billion, according to the site -- than Google. Google spokeswoman Katie Watson told the Associated Press that Google still believes its index is the largest.

Funded by $30 million from investors, the site also boasts a more "magazine-style" index -- instead of one-line listings, there are descriptive chunks of text with photos with options to explore by categories automatically generated based on the search data, as well as tabs that "guess" more specifics about the user's search.

Notably -- and on the heels of complaints about most search engines' practice of saving search history -- Cuil promises total search privacy; no saved history -- no big brother (or big advertising agency) watching.

But, despite the fact that the Cuil staff, many of whom are former Google employees, have openly thrown down the gauntlet to the search engine giant, analysts call the comparison to Google not only unwarranted, but maybe even unfair.

"Obviously, there's a lot of interest in any stealth startup that's going to be a search engine. ... Everyone wants to know, 'Who's the next Google?'" said Erick Schonfeld, co-editor of Silicon Valley tech blog TechCrunch. "There's no way any startup in the world can outperform Google. The question really is whether or not Cuil can produce better results than Google can."

After a day of searching on Cuil and comparing those results to Google, Google wins out every time, returning more results and more relevant results.

On Google, a search for giraffe brought up a Wikipedia entry for giraffes, a link to the San Diego Zoo and the Giraffe Heroes Project. On Cuil, a search for giraffe -- which took quite a long time to surface -- brought up a Wikipedia entry to the video game "Space Giraffe," and categories like "The #1 Ladies Detective Agency" and "Children's Book by Roald Dahl."

A search for movie times (no quotes) on Google brings up Fandango, and On Cuil, a search brings up those listings, but also a Times of London story about Stephen Hawking appearing in a movie.

"There's a very strong team there. They do have some technological advantages," Schonfeld said. "As far as we can tell, right now it's not having an effect on relevance of results. ... Google beats Cuil hands down."

Early during the day of its launch, Cuil also experienced several bugs. A search for giraffe on Cuil early in the day produced no results. Many parts of the site gave error messages when clicked. For first-time users, especially those who aren't search geeks intrigued by the idea of a new competitor for Google and Yahoo, this bugginess is a huge problem, according to Schonfeld.

"Out of the gate, people aren't going to be dropping Google for Cuil. Really, they have to prove over time that they can produce some better results," he said. "If I can't even get to it the first time, I'm not going to bother going back there."

But technology forecaster Paul Saffo says comparing a startup to an established leader like Google is unfair.

"Everyone's doing what you expect and trying Cuil and comparing it to searches they've found on Google, and it sort of misses the point," Saffo said. "You don't get $33 million to compete against Google. That's a suicide mission. You get $33 million to create a search experience that's different from Google."

Saffo maintains that Cuil isn't a search engine -- at least, not in the traditional sense, but instead, a new kind of search experience for people who might be intimidated by Google's one-line entries.

The privacy that Cuil promises is also a boon for the "search experience," according to Saffo.

"Increasingly, people are going to become very worried about the tracks they leave in cyberspace. So, absolutely, this is a good thing," he said. "Privacy is an increasingly scarce resource on the Web, and it's going to be something that people will value more and more."

But whether that will be a huge selling point for a majority of consumers remains to be seen, according to Allen Weiner, a research analyst at Gartner, an information technology research company.

"I don't know how good of a job they've done in selling that to people, but I think, certainly, them bringing it to the public's attention doesn't hurt," he said.

Cuil also faces another barrier, according to Weiner: being solely a search engine.

"Does Cuil really pose a challenge to Google? As of what I can see at this point, the answer is no. I think being able to index a huge number of Web pages is only part of a solution," he said.

Google, Yahoo and their ilk are not just places people go to search for information, but, rather, online destinations where they can search Web pages, video and images, as well as keep e-mail accounts and check out news portals.

"Consumers have been used to going to search engines to do more than search," Weiner said. "They like to search by content type: news and pictures and video. At least at this point, none of that is available [on Cuil]. ... The next generation of search is not about searching more stuff on the Web, but doing a better job of searching video and images, to allowing people to create and share content."

All the experts interviewed say it's too early to predict Cuil's future. In the end, according to Schonfeld, users (not reporters like me or bloggers like him) will ultimately determine whether Cuil sinks or swims.

"People have to keep hearing about it, not just from the media, but from their friends," he said. "They want people to say it's really cool. But it's not -- yet."

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