Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cuil—Google's Kid Goes Goth

It may come as a surprise to younger web browsers but there was actually a time when "Google" wasn't synonymous with search engines. In fact, there was a time when Google didn't exist at all. In the early days of the mid-1990s, there was no place to go looking for information.

Then Yahoo came along with its nice little web directory and the search engine wars began. For several years, a number of search engines with names like Yahoo!, Excite! (exclamation points were big in those days), AltaVista, and Hotbot vied for eyeballs with flashing banner ads vying for advertising dollars and assaulting the senses. Some of them even had useful features. AltaVista, for example, could translate web pages from one language to another. But as the search engine wars accelerated, search pages evolved into ever more bloated "portals" and search was relegated to an afterthought.

Then Google came along. A late-comer to the search wars, Google blew the competition away with two weapons: its powerful page ranking algorithm, and minimalism. While other search engines where turning into bloated messes, Google presented the average web surfer with a much simpler page—a page which looked much the same then as it does today. Once Google found a way to use its search results make tons of cash without annoying too many people, it was all over.

Flash forward to the present. Former Google employees have started Cuil, a new search engine that aims to take a bite out of the hand that once fed them. Like its predecessor, Cuil presents the user with a simple web page. In fact, Cuil's page is even starker than Google's. I don't usually like white text on a black background but unlike other white on black pages, Cuil's actully does succeed in looking cool without impairing usability. The real difference for users shows up in Cuil's search results.

Cuil does a nice job of laying out and organizing search results. Popular search results are organized by categories in an attractive tabbed layout with more thorough descriptions than the ones you'll find on Google. An image from each page is also added the description; while these images are usually related to the page, sometimes Cuil will merely display an ad that just happens to be on the page. Speaking of images, even though Cuil, like Google, has a "Safe Search" feature designed to filter out pornography, I didn't notice much difference between searching with this feature on or off.

So can Cuil compete against Google? Probably not. Google at this point, is turning into another Microsoft in terms of its power on the web. With a wide array of services, ranging from search, to advertising, to video, and beyond, Google is simply too big to fail. Cuil might be able to carve out a niche as an easy to use alternative search engine—an Apple to Google's Microsoft but it can't become a David to Google's Goliath without some divine intervention. Nevertheless, Cuil will be exciting to watch if for no other than reason than to see if its competition can drive Google to be a better search engine.

Update: I could have sworn that I'd seen a slashdot article about Cuil and sure enough here it is. As always, the discussion was pretty interesting. Most of the slashdot geeks are dismissing Cuil but there was also a surprising amount of hostility towards Google in the comments. It surprised me but perhaps it shouldn't have.

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