The Google Challengers: 2008 Edition

Rich Skrenta — who, aside from creating the first computer virus, is more notable to search as a cofounder of the Open Directory Project and the Topix news search engine — has announced he’s founded a search start-up. A stealth one, as TechCrunch puts it. Don’t we already have several stealth search start-ups? Yep. Here’s a guide to who’s who.


What we know so far about Blekko isn’t much, and TechCrunch has the most details in its The Next Google Search Challenger: Blekko post from yesterday. Apparently Rich founded the company in September 2006, along with five other former Topix employees, after he left Topix in June.

Rich told TechCrunch not to likely expect anything public until 2009. I agree with Michael Arrington at TechCrunch that Rich has a track record that makes him well worth watching. The Open Directory was an initial success, though the model didn’t scale well. Some of that was within the founders’ control but had more to do with AOL’s lack of backing. The company should be dragged into the International Court Of Search Crimes and be forced to sell the ODP to someone who will support it properly. Topix has built a reputation and is still standing and succeeding — though I’d say it still has far to go to seriously threaten Google or Yahoo.

Rich adds a bit more in his Why Search? post today:

Having just spent 5 years in the media space, I’ve come away with the idea that editorial differentiation is possible. But the editorial voice of a search engine is in the index…so it has to be algorithmic editorial differentiation.

So far, it doesn’t sound like a social networking play like some of the others. We’ll be watching, Rich. Also see discussion today on Techmeme.


Powerset is now a classic example of why you WANT to be a stealth start-up and say little. That’s because when you get too much early press — in part through your own doing — then fail to deliver anything, the hype can swing back at you hard.

The company came to light back in October 2006 via VentureBeat, with the twist being that natural language search would be the way forward. That caused me to write a long rant about the hype of natural language search in reaction. From the top of that:

This is a rant. It’s a rant from over 10 years of watching people trot out natural language search as the “killer” solution to the current state of search, something that’s happening once again with Powerset. That’s a search engine you can’t even use at the moment, but the hype will no doubt continue. To counteract that, my thoughts on and some history about natural language search.

Natural language search makes a compelling pitch for those who really don’t know search or haven’t heard the natural language mantra before. I’ve seen the pitch time and time again. You:

  • Pick out an example that shows how “bad” search is on an existing search engine
  • Demonstrate how natural language search would work better on your service
  • Sit back and collect the press attention

I then went on to detail how natural language search had been hyped and tried over the years. The short story is this: It doesn’t take much natural language analysis to figure out what someone wants when they type in “britney spears nude” or “hotmail.” In addition, by and large I don’t believe enough people will change their basic search habits to enter long sentences when searching any time soon.

Since that time, we’ve pretty much had nothing out of Powerset other than the launch of Powerset Labs in September 2007. That launch hasn’t produced any cool applications that I’ve seen or heard about, nor much buzz. Instead, in November, we got a management shake-up.

For a more formal chronicle of the company’s developments, check out this area at VentureBeat and these search results at TechCrunch.

Finally, while I’m harsh above on Powerset, I actually had a long visit with the company in the middle of last year and was deeply impressed with the effort going on there. I’m still working on a long write-up to explain what’s happening. But in a nutshell, Powerset is trying to literally comprehend or understand each page on the web.

Today’s search engines don’t know what a page is about by reading words. They’re more or less doing pattern matching — finding pages that contain words similar to what you search for (or pages relevant to those words based on linkage). Powerset literally is trying to read and understand what a page is about the way a human reads a page and knows it is on various subjects.

I don’t see that as making it a better search engine that Google. Instead, I think it may eventually give it the ability to create a unique “auto-Wikipedia” style site, assembling knowledge pages on any subject automatically. I also think that there will eventually be some search benefit in comprehension of pages, but exactly how that will play out I suspect is part of being with an existing search engine and a more traditional model. With the array of patents Powerset has lined up, I suspect it will eventually get acquired by Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft rather than rollout its own product. But we’ll see.


Like Powerset, Hakia has played the natural language search game. Unlike Powerset, it has a product anyone can use — live since at least the middle of 2006.

Again, I’ve been working on a long write-up on the inner workings of Hakia and have yet to finish it. It’s complicated, and I mainly want to cover what I find to be the real use of their technology — the ability to create custom “gallery” pages and understand those are related to particular searches.

It’s easier to show you what’s impressive. Search for hillary clinton, and you get a nice page showing news, her official site, biography pages, blogs & fan sites, news & interviews, and more. It’s very Mahalo-like, except it doesn’t require human editors like Mahalo and predates Mahalo by a year.

That categorization is something I know the major search engines could do, if they wanted. So far, they don’t. And so far, despite Hakia talking about its rising traffic, it has yet to make a serious mark. Moreover, in October, it made a serious shift to allow social interaction with its results. That’s a sign that the original plan that “natural language will win all” has failed to do so; therefore, another twist is needed.

Social Networking Through Search: Hakia Helps You Meet Others from Vanessa Fox here at Search Engine Land covers the change, plus it gets into the natural language indexing stuff I mentioned earlier that makes Hakia unique, plus has examples of gallery pages.


Credit to Jason Calacanis. He said he wanted to take on Google, then wasted no time getting Mahalo rolled out. OK, he also says he’s not taking on Google — just focusing on the top searches that he thinks would be better with human review. Sure, you aren’t taking on Google, Jason.

To date, Jason reports that Mahalo’s traffic is growing and strong. But to date, I’ve certainly see no webmasters taking about what a traffic driver Mahalo is. It would be early to call it a raging success, but it’s a nice alternative to have. Indeed, later this month I’ll finally finish my Search 4.0 piece that picks up from the conclusion of my Search 3.0: The Blended & Vertical Search Revolution article last November. I’ll show some examples of how the human element at Mahalo can and has kicked some Google and traditional search engine butt — though also how it isn’t the panacea some expect.

Some of our past coverage of Mahalo:

Search Wikia / Wikia Search

Wikipedia founder (as he prefers to be called; Wikipedia itself calls him cofounder) Jimmy Wales made waves a year ago when he said he’d take on “closed” Google with humans and a transparent search engine. Called Search Wikia (but, confusingly, it’s also called Wikia Search), Wales has grabbed attention from the press over the past year. Slamming at Google as a scary closed thing gets you good mileage, especially when you helped establish Wikipedia, a threat Google takes so seriously that it may launch its own Wikipedia-style site, Google Knol.

Now Wikia Search is at hand. A private “pre-alpha” test started in late December, an invite-only thing I still find odd for a service that’s supposedly all about the “transparency.” But on Monday, the general public will finally get a look at whatever Wales and his team have concocted. In the meantime, while Wales still hasn’t posted any news since July 27 to the “news” section of Search Wikia, press reports tell us so far:

  • Only a tiny 50 to 100 million pages will be indexed at launch. The major search engines today have tens of billions of pages indexed. (AP)
  • There will be a high degree of human editorial influence, though whether that’s over the algorithm or the search results on a per-query basis remains to be seen (CMP)
  • An early screenshot suggested that Search Wikia might be evolving more into a Facebook-style service, perhaps with some ways for users to share results (Matthew Buckland & Wired)

Some of our past coverage of Search Wikia:


Arguably the stealthiest of the stealth start-ups, Cuill (pronounced “cool”) has an impressive pedigree with its three founders: Tom Costello of IBM’s WebFountain project and Anna Patterson and Russell Power of Google’s TeraGoogle project, its massive search index. And last year, former AltaVista founder Louis Monier — who later went to eBay as its first eBay Fellow, then to Google — jumped ship from Google to join Cuill.

I talked with Cuill earlier this year to understand a bit more about what they are doing, but the details are still being held very closely. The main difference between Cuill and everyone else I’ve named above is that Cuill is founded by people who understand and have dealt with firsthand the challenge of indexing billions of documents.

Cuill recently took on more funding. Louis is also going to be doing a keynote at our SMX West search marketing conference, held in Santa Clara, California from Feb. 26-28. I’m thrilled to be having him since there are only a handful of people who have worked for the “old” Google (AltaVista), the current Google (when he was at the Big G), and a potential future Google (Cuill).

And The Winner Is…

If you think the future of search is on smart automation, Cuill’s definitely one to watch, and perhaps Blekko as well. If you think it’s the growth of humans, Mahalo and Search Wikia are your better candidates. The reality is that success will likely be a blend of the two. For the human services, a real open source index would be a big help — see Google: As Open As It Wants To Be (i.e., When It’s Convenient) for more about this.

But the reality is that all of these services will have an incredibly tough time to beat Google.

Google came along at a very special time, as I’ve long written. It had better technology at a time when all the search engines had abandoned improving search, since that was seen as a loss leader. The money was in portal features.

Today, search is a multi-billion dollar industry. If someone with a serious search threat comes along, you buy them (such as with YouTube), or you start to develop your own rival if it seems a real threat. Google’s not omnipotent — but you’ve already got a space where it’s Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Ask all seriously fighting it out (and the latter three, despite their funding and experience, still struggle against Google as being synonymous as a trusted search brand for most users).

To date, Google is the real exception of “a better mousetrap wins.” It’s far more likely the companies above, if they do gain traction, will end up being purchased for a large amount by one of the existing “search utility companies.”

Related Topics: Blekko | Channel: Industry | Google: Business Issues | Search Engines: Hakia | Search Engines: Mahalo | Search Engines: Other Search Engines | Search Engines: Search Wikia


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


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