Ex-Google ad boss builds tracker-free search engine

Neeva screenshotNeeva

An advert- and tracker-free search engine launches in the UK, France and Germany on Thursday.

Neeva has 600,000 users in the US, where it launched last year.

Creator Sridhar Ramaswamy, who worked at Google for 16 years and ran its ad business, told BBC News the technology sector had become “exploitative” of people’s data, something he no longer wanted to be a part of.

Trackers share information about online activity, largely to target adverts.

Neeva has raised $77.5m (£68m) from investors.

It offers free-to-use search, with other features such as password-manager access and virtual-private-network (VPN) service to be made available on a subscription basis.

Users are asked to create an account, to build subscriptions at a later date.

And the UK price was likely to be about £5 per month, Mr Ramaswamy said.

“We felt the traditional search engines had become about advertising and advertisers – and not really about serving users,” he said.

“Google has a dominant position in the marketplace – and the incentive for them to truly innovate, to truly create disruptive experiences, is not really there.

“And then also as a company they feel obligated to show more and more revenue and profit to their shareholders, so they just keep increasing the number of ads.”

Trying out Neeva

Search the word “migraine” on both Google and Neeva, and the first page of the results are fairly similar – links to news articles and factual information.

Neeva creator Sridhar Ramaswamy


But with a brand, the difference becomes more stark.

When I try “BMW”, both search engines lead with links to the carmaker’s website and Wikipedia entry.

But while Google follows with a map, social-media feeds and links to used-car dealers, Neeva sticks with different BMW official pages.

Google certainly has more variety – but it is also blatantly pushing me towards buying a car.

Neeva’s Chrome browser extension lists the trackers installed on web pages visited.

I tried a few:

  • the Daily Mail had 351 trackers.
  • the BBC four, two of which were internal tools
  • Tesco five
  • Sainsbury’s 10
  • parenting forum Mumsnet 27
  • the front page of Reddit three
  • Amazon three – all its own

And almost all – but not the BBC – had at least one belonging to Google, meaning Google is receiving anonymised information about users visiting those pages.

While I had the extension activated, no ads displayed around the editorial content.

But ultimately, none of Neeva’s other rivals has dented the dominance of Google search.

“To Bing” or “to Duckduckgo” – another privacy-focused service – are not verbs in the way “to google” is.

And asked if Mr Ramaswamy could ever topple his former employer, Steph Liu, an analyst at Forrester specialising in privacy and search, said: “Realistically, no.

“It’s a sort of David and Goliath story. Google has too many users, it has too much revenue.

“The ultimate goal is to offer an alternative for the consumer base who are worried about their privacy, who don’t want Google hoovering up their data and targeting ads based on their search history”.


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