"You.com wants to hit Google where it counts: Search"

Nov 9, 2021 at 12:00 Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff has been holding onto the "you.com" domain name since 1996. He purchased it in Hawaii while taking a sabbatical from Oracle. Only recently did Benioff stumble upon a project seemingly worthy of the name: You.com, a privacy-focused search engine that Benioff called "the future of search."

You.com launched its public beta Tuesday. It also announced a $20 million seed funding round led by Marc Benioff's TIME Ventures. Breyer Capital, Sound Ventures and Day One Ventures also participated in the funding round.

Any new search engine provider must answer the obvious question: What makes your product any better than Google?

"We provide so much more convenience and still have better privacy in the moments that you want it," CEO Richard Socher said in an interview with Protocol. Socher, who previously served as chief scientist at Salesforce, described Google as "pretty terrible when it comes to privacy." He added that Google wouldn't be able to compete with You.com on the privacy front since "they make too much money invading everyone's privacy."

You.com has publicly committed to never sell user data through targeted ads. It doesn't generate money and has instead focused on growth and product development. However, Socher said the company "may have to keep our options open when it comes to other ways to monetize." He said You.com has creative ideas for monetization that go "beyond privacy-preserving ads like DuckDuckGo has," but declined to comment further.

If Google is the elephant in the room for You.com, then DuckDuckGo might be best described as the other person scrambling to pick up stray peanuts when the elephant isn't looking.

Both DuckDuckGo and You.com partner with Bing on some search results. And DuckDuckGo, like You.com, insists there needn't be a trade-off between privacy and the user search experience. In August, DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg told Protocol: "It is embedded in people's minds that there has to be a trade-off. But we don't think it's true."

But You.com wants to flank DuckDuckGo on both convenience and privacy. It's attempting to do so by offering two search modes: default and incognito. Unlike DuckDuckGo, You.com's default mode knows user identities and is therefore able to tie searches together. It also logs analytics for search history, usage data, diagnostics and other data. On the flip side, You.com claims its incognito actually offers more privacy than DuckDuckGo's standard search option since it doesn't store searches at all.

Google executives likely aren't losing much sleep over the competitive threat posed by DuckDuckGo, so it's worth asking why You.com would be any different. Socher himself described You.com's two main target personas as developers and privacy-aware users. But you don't launch a vegan, gluten-free fast food chain and expect to take down McDonald's. DuckDuckGo already targets the privacy-minded demographic, and it averages over 100 million searches a day. There's clearly demand for a more privacy-preserving search engine, but that still pales in comparison to Google's estimated search volume in the billions of queries per day.

Aside from privacy, You.com aims to attract users by differentiating the actual search experience. Search results are divided vertically by apps; people can scroll horizontally within those apps to browse results. Apps include services such as Stack Overflow, Amazon, Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, Medium and The New York Times.

You.com only reorders results within some of the apps. For instance, it has a partnership with Medium and reorders its results, but with Twitter it just relays the search results as they would appear on the site. Socher explained, "because Twitter is very large, it would cost a lot of money to try to index all of it, rank it all and sort it all."

You.com uses AI and neural networks to guess which apps would be most relevant to each search. It serves them up accordingly and also takes into account users' stated preference for apps. That means it knows not to serve up the Spotify app if someone is searching for a burrito.

You.com uses AI and neural networks to guess which apps would be most relevant to each search.Image: You.com

Socher described the overall You.com search experience as "very different to [what] anyone else [has offered] in the last 20 years in search." He said Google's search experience was "nowhere near as useful" and described it as "50% … white space and then you have a bunch of blue links."

Though Socher is confident in You.com's product and positioning, he acknowledges that the company still has a long road ahead. Monetization is a huge outstanding question, at least for those who aren't privy to the internal ideas floating around the You.com team. Socher said they want to expand internationally even though "our language support is really quite limited." For now, You.com is only available in the U.S. You.com also doesn't yet have a mobile app. Socher conceded that "the experience on mobile is not that good yet."

The $20 million in seed funding will go a long way toward helping You.com address these shortcomings. The company is still small but wants to grow significantly over the next couple of months. And it's promising enough, at least, that Benioff bestowed a domain name he purchased way back when what we now know as Google might still have become "BackRub.com."

-"You.com wants to hit Google where it counts: Search"