Sridhar Ramaswamy once ran Google’s $115 billion advertising arm. But he grew disillusioned and worried that growth was too much of a priority. From a report: Nearly two years after he left Google, he is testing his newfound conviction by mounting a challenge against his former employer. His new company, Neeva, is a search engine that looks for information on the web as well as personal files like emails and other documents. It will not show any advertisements and it will not collect or profit from user data, he said. It plans to make money on subscriptions from users paying for the service. As evidenced by the antitrust investigations into Google’s businesses, challenging the company is no easy task. Google accounts for roughly 90 percent of all searches globally and competitors have tried unsuccessfully for years to make inroads. Neeva faces the additional hurdle of getting people to pay for something that many have come to expect as free. While there is a growing awareness that free services from Google and Facebook come at the expense of personal data, many consumers — even those who express a concern about their privacy — are often unwilling to pay for an alternative.
Neeva recalls a notion raised, ironically, by the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in a 1998 research paper when they were doctoral students at Stanford University. They wrote, at the time, that “advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results.” Search advertising has become much more sophisticated since the 1990s, but much of the same “conflicts of interest” remains, according to Mr. Ramaswamy. Companies are often torn between serving the interests of advertisers or the interests of users. He pointed to how Google has devoted more space to ads at the top of search results with the results users are seeking pushed down the page — an issue more pronounced on smaller smartphone screens. “It’s a slow drift away from what is the best answer for the user and how do we surface it,” he said. “As a consumer product, the more pressure there is to show ads, the less useful in the long term the product becomes.”