Cuil off to a rough start as Google killer

John Shinal · July 28, 2008 · Short URL:

Startup with big brains and big numbers has tough slog ahead; privacy policy could be key

Cuil BayBeing Cuil wasn't very cool today.

The upstart search engine with the management team of ex-Google engineers and other Silicon Valley veterans lived every startup's nightmare when its servers repeatedly crashed on the company's launch day.

For example, when I typed in a search query for "Senate hearings on Yahoo Google search pact," the algorithm that crawls a reported 120 billion Web pages never got the chance to do its thing.

Instead, what appeared on my screen said "No results because of high load."

Worse still, the spelling of the company's name was derided in some circles as sophomoric, not to mention hard to pronounce.

Well, there's always Day Two for Cuil to show it can duil with Google, Yahoo and the rest. 

The company says it searches three times the number of pages as Google. I'm not sure how that significant that will prove. My guess is that most search users are like me -- they don't care how many pages get searched, just how relevant and useful the results are that get returned. 

Another feature that Cuil has touted is that it displays the results in a more pleasing, magazine-style format. But for me, when the servers did return a page prompted by the query "Icahn Yahoo bid," the layout was more distracting.

The first result was a story about Paulson backing Icahn's bid. That seemed a bit strange, since I would have guessed that something about the bid itself, an earlier entry, would have risen to the top of the heap.

And in what can only be described as a non sequitir, the result was illustrated with a photo of a Time magazine cover of the Google management team. Something with Icahn and Jerry Yang would have made more sense.

What's more, although I can't be 100% sure, another result is illustrated with a photo of veteran Barron's writer Eric Savitz (or his doppelganger), which made me think he wrote the accompanying story. I'm not sure how that would be releveant, even if he did write it, which he didn't, as I discovered after clicking on the link.

It's easy to write Cuil off after a bad day like today, and I'm sure not about to bet the house on an upstart going against the Google juggernaut and a half-dozen other large companies that control most of the U.S. search market.

For one thing, I just can't believe it will be hard for Google and others to change how they format their results, if consumers start to favor Cuil for its look. And with Microsoft now bringing marketing subsidies into play with its LiveSearch cash discount program, the market for search just got more competitive.

But let's face it, a lot of people scoffed at Google when it formed after at least five other established search rivals.

One thing that is interesting, and that may prove a key differentiator, is that Cuil says it doesn't collect any data on what individuals are searching for.

For the growing number of consumers concerned about Internet privacy, that could be a key selling point. Microsoft , in Senate hearings last week on the Yahoo-Google search deal, raised the specter of a Google so dominant that it would not have to take into account consumers' privacy concerns.

Those concerns are real, given how much data Google, Yahoo -- and Microsoft -- keep on users search habits. If more personal data gets exposed -- and it will, either througth public trials or civil lawsuits, the privacy issue will only grow.

As someone who has long criticized Google's data-retention practices, I hope that Cuil can use that as a strategic weapon.

Still, from a business perspective, I'm curious how the upstart will garner cost-per-click rates approaching Google's if it can't offer advertisers sponsored links based on users' past behavior.

Will have to hear back on that one from the folks at quill, er, I mean Cuil.

One place where Cuil has already drawn even with Google -- neither were able to turn up an image of a Cuil logo. You think that getting one into an indexed page would have been part of the launch checklist for Cuil's PR folks.

But no worries. Using Google, I was able to turn up a lovely shot of Cuil Bay in the British highlands to illustrate this story. 

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