Ad-free search engine Neeva closes down

Organic Search

Last October, we covered the launch of a new ad-free search engine known as Neeva. Founded by ex-Googlers Sridhar Ramaswamy and Vivek Raghunathan, Neeva was an advert-and tracker-free search engine that claimed users would receive ‘no tracking’ and ‘no bias’. As a result, the company claimed users could ‘search free from corporate influence’.

However, although it promised to revolutionise the world of search, Neeva is now shutting down its consumer-facing operations due to sustainability issues. Sadly, despite an initial surge in popularity, Neeva has faced difficulties convincing users to switch from established search engines such as Google.

Neeva’s short history

Initially launched in 2019, Neeva aimed to disrupt the search engine market by offering an alternative way of searching that prioritised user privacy and provided an ad-free experience.

When he launched Neeva, Mr Ramaswamy asserted his belief that search engines had become too reliant on ads and were starting to prioritise advertisers over customers.

Using a lean team of 50 people, Neeva built a search stack from the ground up and made great initial progress. In fact, the company became the first search engine to provide cited, real-time AI answers to most queries in early 2022.

The project was also very successful in its early stages. Only four months after the company launched, Neeva had grown substantially and began to attract more than half a million monthly users. However, although initial growth numbers were impressive, Neeva did struggle to convince regular users to switch from their established search habits.

Ultimately, shifting the user mind set was a challenge that was too difficult for a company like Neeva to overcome. As a result, the company cited this user acquisition challenge and an unspecified shift in the economic environment as reasons for the decision to cease operations.

In a recent blog post, the founders admitted that “there is no longer a path towards creating a sustainable business in consumer search… As a result, over the next few weeks, we will be shutting down and our consumer search product, and shifting to a new area of focus.”

As part of the shutdown process, Neeva will delete all user data. Subscribers to Neeva Premium will also receive a refund for the unused portion of their subscriptions.

However, although Neeva will not continue in its current form, the company’s journey isn’t over. Although nothing has been confirmed just yet, the company has hinted that it will instead switch focus towards exploring how large language models (LLMs) can be used inexpensively, safely and responsibly.

At face value, this seems like an incredibly wise move. After all, many of the techniques that Neeva has pioneered, such as model size reduction, latency reduction and inexpensive deployment are elements that enterprises still require.

Added to this, the company is also exploring other monetarisation plans, such as licencing deals to power application search inside enterprises.

Neeva have already announced that it has been acquired by Data Cloud technology specialists, Snowflake who are looking to integrate the generative AI functionality of Neeva within its own product offering.

Why does this matter?

The closure of Neeva shows just how difficult it is for a new entrant to become established in the search engine market. After all, the company seemingly had everything: a unique proposal, innovative features and expertise from renowned executives in the space. Perhaps in 2023 Google is now so established and dominant that it is near impossible for a rival to break through.

In their blog post, the Neeva founders backed this view, stating that “contrary to popular belief, convincing users to pay for a better experience was actually a less difficult problem compared to getting them to try a new search engine in the first place.”

That said, we must remember that the Neeva experiment has not been a complete failure. Not only will the company likely remain in some guise, but its use of LLMs could influence how other companies approach using AI in search. As a result, Neeva’s legacy in the space could last far beyond its initial search offering.