July 28, 2008

Cuil Takes On Google

If you spend any time reading the news you have probably come across Cuil. It is among the many contenders that have been trying to oust Google from their throne as king of search engines. They do have some things going for them that others don't.

Let's take a quick look at what the media reports. Here is a blurb from CNN/Money:

"SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Anna Patterson's last Internet search engine was so impressive that industry leader Google Inc. bought the technology in 2004 to upgrade its own system.

She believes her latest invention is even more valuable - only this time it's not for sale.

Patterson instead intends to upstage Google, which she quit in 2006 to develop a more comprehensive and efficient way to scour the Internet.

The end result is Cuil, pronounced "cool." Backed by $33 million in venture capital, the search engine plans to begin processing requests for the first time Monday.

Cuil had kept a low profile while Patterson, her husband, Tom Costello, and two other former Google engineers - Russell Power and Louis Monier - searched for better ways to search.

Now, it's boasting time.

Web index: For starters, Cuil's search index spans 120 billion Web pages.

Patterson believes that's at least three times the size of Google's index, although there is no way to know for certain. Google stopped publicly quantifying its index's breadth nearly three years ago when the catalog spanned 8.2 billion Web pages."

I suppose that you could say having Google purchase your technology gives you a certain cachet. But then again you could say that the purchase is also a way to stifle competition. For now I'll take the former approach and say that Patterson knows what she is doing.

Rafe Needleman offers a review of Cuil here.

"What this means, in the real world, is that Cuil results are automatically categorized. When you search for a common name, for example, Cuil will give you a result page where results for different individuals with that name are groups under tabs. It will also break out sub-topics related to each name. In Cuil's canned demo, if you search for "Harry," there are different tabs for "Harry Potter" and "Prince Harry of Wales." On the Harry Potter tab, you'll get further sub-links devoted to actors, Gryffindor dorm-mates, etc. "We have a strong ontological commitment," Costello told me, meaning that parsing search results into readable chunks is a very big part of the Cuil value proposition.

The service also displays images from Web results whenever possible. It all adds up to search results pages that are much more attractive, and useful, than Google's.

Another potential advantage of the context-based search is that it allows Cuil searches to be more respectful of user privacy. Unlike Google, which simply has to track every single click to refine its index, Cuil's context-based search does not. In practice, the distinction may be moot because Cuil will need to track clicks to see if their results are actually working for people, but it could serve as a marketable distinction.

Context-based indexing also presents a juicier target for search spammers, but as Costello says, "that's a success problem."

It's one thing to have a nice interface and show users good results, but the size of the Web index that the engine has access to matters a lot as well. And this is where Cuil makes its boldest claim. Costello says that the engine is launching with 120 billion pages indexed, well over the 40 billion he says Google has (although see Google's latest bluster about the company's power at Web indexing). Costello also claims that Cuil's Web crawler is three times faster than Google's, although it wasn't clear to me if he meant that is per search computer or for the entire system. Compared with Google's globe-spanning data network of data centers, some literally set up near dams so they can tap hydro power more efficiently, Cuil's two puny data centers hosting less than 2,000 PCs total will have to run pretty fast to outpace Google's crawlers."

I agree with assessments that say that it is going to be hard to unseat a behemoth like Google whose brand recognition is unmatched. However, nothing stays the same forever.

Part of what I enjoy about technology is how fast it can change. If companies don't work hard to stay ahead of the curve and to provide value they will find themselves in serious trouble.

If Cuil delivers what they promise they have an excellent chance to become a serious player.

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