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Exclusive | Ad-free search engine Neeva to launch in India next year: CEO Sridhar Ramaswamy

In an interview with Moneycontrol from the US, Ramaswamy spoke about why he wants to reimagine the future of search, if the subscription-driven model will work and his plans for India.

June 07, 2021 / 02:50 PM IST
Sridhar Ramaswamy was part of the early engineering team that built Google Search.

Sridhar Ramaswamy was part of the early engineering team that built Google Search.

Sridhar Ramaswamy was part of the early engineering team that built Google Search and he later led Google's advertising products, which accounts for a lion's share of its revenue. But he gave it all up in 2018, as he believed ads detract from a good search experience and can also lead to unintended social consequences.

He started up an ad-free, subscription search engine Neeva in 2019 with his former colleague Vivek Raghunathan, who led engineering for YouTube monetisation. Sridhar, an alumnus of IIT-Madras, and Vivek, an alumnus of IIT Bombay, met in the early days of search ads at Google and decided to start up Neeva over hikes and coffee. Neeva recently raised $40 million in Series B led by Greylock Partners, Sequoia Capital, with participation from Inovia Capital, valuing it at $300 million.

In an interview with Moneycontrol from the US, Ramaswamy spoke about why he wants to reimagine the future of search, if the subscription-driven model will work and his plans for India.

Edited excerpts:

 You have spent the majority of your career building Google’s ad engine and now you are building an ad-free search engine, Neeva. Was there anything particular that triggered you when you were working in Google?

It was not a specific event but more a series of conversations with my co-founder, Vivek Raghunathan, that eventually made us conceive the concept. I think about Neeva from two broad perspectives. All of us search a lot. The time from a talk to an actual search whether spoken or typed is instinctive. We just open up a new tab and put it in the search engine, or we open up the phone and speak to it. It is a very common function, it's also a personal one.

Meaning, we ask questions in the search engine that we would hesitate to ask our friends.

I know just from the experience of running the ads team and various other teams related to search that there was more pressure to monetise it, pressure to show ads and make more money. So the organic experience (of search) in some ways was getting worse and worse over time, and that is partly the motivation for Neeva.

What is Neeva attempting to do?

Search is a $150 billion business and growing at 20 percent. It is a part of the overall advertising ecosystem, which is digital advertising that is growing significantly. And one incumbent has over 90 percent share of this market. This has never happened in history before, where one incumbent is so strong and keeps growing.

A different way to think about Neeva is an ad-free private subscription search, essentially creating Netflix or other things that have been done along this front, such as Spotify or Apple Music.

Because this model of subscription-driven search lets us focus on creating a really great experience that focuses on what the customers need, as opposed to what advertisers need. So we think the subscription search model puts the customer first, makes us focus completely on what's right for you and it's also going to be a successful business.

In some ways, Neeva is the antithesis to what Google is. Can you take us through what is going behind that is powering Neeva?

I think of it less as the antithesis of Google and more as a complement. I will go back to examples of Spotify or Netflix. Nobody said they are anti-movie theatre or anti-NBC. It is an interesting complement, but with that comes the power of focusing on the customer first. We use technologies that are common. We crawl the web and rely on external partners for things like local and stock information. We put them together into a web page that we think is the right result for you because there are no ads. When you run a shopping query, for example, it is no secret that when you are shopping on a commercial search engine you're going to see big retailers, as the results. Why?

Because these are the retailers that have the money, marketing departments, and brand recognition to always be on top. It is not an option for a commercial search engine to not show them. On the other hand, if you come to Neeva, you can say, I just want to see small retailers and we are happy to show you just those rather than the big retailers. I only have one person to make me happy and that is you, the customer of the search engine.

One of the things that we are going to be launching soon is another little button right on the search page where you can say only show me government and nonprofit sites when I look for these kinds of queries. And we are happy to do that because you know directories are not paying us. We are happy to give you whatever information you need.

These are the different ways in which we think we can create a much more personalized experience that gives you the customer, a lot more agency over what is going on within the search engine.

The question that comes to our mind is predictive search and you know it's just so seamless and we don't care about who is advertising what as long as we get the results we want. So how are you going to do this differently, and who will decide what is relevant for us, customers? Why should I trust Neeva more than I trust other search engines?

There is a ranking algorithm but the power of the ranking algorithm comes from the business model because our business model is fundamentally about an ongoing stable relationship with our customers. If you don't like what we do, and if we don't have credibility with you, we are not going to have customers.

(For example) We launched a feature called news preferred providers, where you can basically customise which news sources you would like to prioritise. The fact of the matter is that I have subscriptions to some sites, but not to other sites, and it makes sense for me to have more results from these sites. I'm not denying that there's obviously a ranking engine that nuances the ranked sites. We will never take money from anybody that we are sending traffic to, and you are never going to be shown affiliate links. Every single result that you see on the result page is one that's meant to serve you to get you to where you want to go.

While there is clearly a case for subscription-based search engines, doesn’t it make privacy a luxury? This means that only a very small portion of people are going to get access to that. What are your thoughts on that?

I think this claim that products need to be free so that they are available to everybody is a self-serving model that the advertising industry has created more than any other model.

If you think about all the innovations that have made our lives better, from electricity to running water to cars to even phones. They have all been driven by paid products that with scale got cheaper and more affordable to everybody.

The amount of money that Google spends on search has not really significantly increased over the last 10 years but the amount of money that Google has made on search has gone up by a factor of three and all of those go to the provider, not to society, not to you and me. So I think that creating low-cost products that are affordable to everybody is a far more sustainable means, than an ad model that essentially gets you hooked into a model where the product gets worse over time and all the gains of scale go to the incumbent not to the user.

What are your thoughts on the Indian market? India is fast becoming the world's largest market in terms of the volume of Internet users. It's a huge market for Google, Facebook and others. So can you give us your perspective in terms of how Neeva sees the opportunity here?

We are early in our journey, but it’s a huge priority. I’m looking forward to bringing Neeva to India, but just in terms of practical priorities, we have got a 50 person team and our objective this year is to launch in the US. Then, quickly expand out to Western Europe and Canada and then India should be sometime next year.

You are planning for the launch next year, but do you think India is ready? Unlike the other markets, people don't want to pay when they're getting something for free. Do you have a different set of plans for India compared to what you have in probably Canada or the US, where you're planning to launch?

Obviously we have to do the work that it takes to figure out what the market can offer. In the beginning, it will likely be seen as a luxury product. One of the things that I want to stress again, though is, it is much less about privacy. Privacy is a consequence of the subscription model, and it's not the main goal of Neeva. If you pay for the product, why would you not get privacy? It becomes a very natural part of what we do. We are really about creating an incredibly useful personalised search experience for you that has privacy built in from the beginning, because that's the model that we are able to create. And you know Netflix is actually hugely popular in India. I'm incredibly impressed by all the Indian movies and series that I'm able to see both on Amazon Prime and on Netflix.

There will be a time soon, I hope, that people will decide that they get a lot of value from a product like ours, but you have to work hard to earn it. India is also incredibly competitive as it should be and we’ll have to work for it.

Any plans either building your team in India or, is it too early. Because you said you know right now, the focus is going to be on the US market.

That is an active topic of half of the conversation. When I was at Google, we had amazing teams that were based in other places so we have a lot of experience working across continents. We’re definitely on the lookout for a leader that can set us up in one of the centres in India and get us going, nothing would make me happier.

You had mentioned you have the product launch scheduled for Q2 2021, which is by June, Is it on track, or when is the exact launch plan?

We are still working on the exact dates, but we feel pretty confident that we will be openly available in the US sometime in July. That is what we are planning to do. A startup is chaotic. Unlike a large company, where you can plan every single thing  back to back. With a startup it tends to be a little bit more chaotic but we're feeling pretty good about launching the product.

What’s your larger vision? As you mentioned, a dominant player who has a 90 percent share and that's been the case for many, many years so how do you see Neeva breaking into that? 

Why we think we will succeed in this model is that the subscription model is much more friendly to partners. If you're a retailer, Neeva is going to send you traffic. We are not going to turn it on tomorrow and say you have to pay for ads if you want to get the same traffic. That is the reality of today. In fact, we want to go one step further and have publisher partnership programmes. If we surface content right on our search page, for example, we actually want to share a portion of our revenue with these content creators so it's a much more publisher and content friendly ecosystem than an ad-supported ecosystem is ever going to be.

It is for all of these reasons that we think we can be successful, and of course it's no secret that at this point, there is no love lost for big tech, and people want options, and the amount of feedback that I get about how we need these options is pretty incredible overall. Also, unlike a Duck Duck Go (a search engine), which you can think of as a privacy proxy, something that sits in between you and the search engine, it uses exactly the same technology, exactly the same business model of showing you ads.

So this subscription idea, both from the concept in terms of how it's been employed before the team, and the technology and the partnership mindset, I think these are the qualities that are going to make us successful.

What the subscription cost is going to be? You spoke about the partnerships with the publishers. Is that an alternate revenue model you're looking at, apart from just subscriptions? 

I want there to be a full-featured version that is $5 a month roughly, and we can potentially create bundles with other additional things for a higher price to create more of a premium tier. But we want this service to be high quality, low cost, and affordable. You should be able to afford Neeva for less than the cost of two cups of coffee and there are cups of coffee in the US that cost more than $5. So we think that is a very useful guiding principle for where we should set the price.

(As for partnership with publishers) I want us to be paid only by customers, and that is important for us because that's what gives us independence. When we do things like surface up publishers’ content, it could be a blog page, or a portion of somebody's premium inventory on Neeva, that's when we want to do a revenue share to the publisher. This is something that is far down the line, but the point is that this model is very publisher-friendly. In terms of actual dollar costs will probably end up having one or two versions, depending on how we package things.

What kind of a future do you see for Neeva, beyond search for consumers? Are you looking at building other products?

It is a funny question because you know I advise a lot of startups, and one core piece of advice that I always give them is after you achieve grand success there is always any number of options that you can go with. So, search and building a business is our most important priority. I would say that a very natural continuation of what we do is providing search for enterprises. At the end of the day, companies get even more out of not having things like their searches leak out to the entire Internet. They care a lot about privacy and quality when they are looking for information. Plus, with the rise of online services, it becomes very hard to tell if a file is in Google Drive, Dropbox or did somebody put the central Office 365? There is a very natural continuation of providing this as a paid service to people at work.

Those are far down the line and one of the nice things about going after a 360 degrees market is you have work to do, and that's what we are doing. We want to create a great product that you will love.
Swathi Moorthy
Chandra R Srikanth is Editor- Tech, Startups, and New Economy
first published: Jun 7, 2021 02:47 pm