by James Hercher // Wednesday, August 4th, 2021 – 3:02 pm
Some big-name players in the space think so.
In June, there was the public launch of Neeva, an ad-free subscription search experience. Co-founded by a crew of former Google search and advertising product leaders, it’s headed by Sridhar Ramaswamy, who ran Google’s search advertising business. Then the privacy-focused browser Brave announced its own search engine.
Most people probably haven’t thought too much about their search engine. Google has a 90% share of the North American search engine market, according to Statcounter data, up from 84% 10 years ago. Google search is everywhere: Chrome (with built-in Google search) holds the majority share of the browser market, and Google search is licensed to major potential rivals like Apple.
But as privacy and security become a bigger priority for US consumers, those issues are making people rethink their search engine decisions.
AdExchanger looked at the business models and strategies of upstart search engines vying for a piece of Google’s share of the search market and, in some cases, a piece of Google’s advertising pie.
DuckDuckGo, founded in 2008, was one of the first privacy-focused browsers to pull search users away from the Googleverse. It’s been a steady contender in the category, if only because it’s an alternative to Big Tech search engines (i.e., Google, Microsoft Bing and Yahoo) and hammered out a position for itself as a privacy-focused provider.
DuckDuckGo thinks of itself as “an internet privacy company,” said Kamyl Bazbaz, the company’s VP of communications. On top of the search engine, it announced a desktop app that can be used as a browser last month. A separate email privacy solution screens emails from certain providers so the real address isn’t disclosed.
Search engines nowadays need features for mapping, travel planning and news. Google spends tens or hundreds of millions of dollars per year on all of those things. DuckDuckGo contracts out that work. TripAdvisor provides travel search info; Apple’s Safari WebKit is the code for the browser tech and Apple Maps is the location data provider; Wikipedia answers some basic query results. The biggest partner is Bing, which handles ad sales. (Every query comes as if it’s from a fresh user.)
DuckDuckGo has been profitable since 2014 and earned more than $100 million in the past year, Bazbaz said.
DuckDuckGo lacks the resources and platform advantages of other search engines, but it shows how lucrative a search engine toehold can be, even without Google’s tracking apparatus. In the US, DuckDuckGo’s market share grew from 1.3% two years ago to about 2.5% now, though it doesn’t top 1% usage elsewhere, according to Statista data.
But it still has a $100 million run rate. And there’s room to grow.
DuckDuckGo expects user growth from people who browse in private modes to avoid trackers or use two-party authentication or security services to protect accounts, Bazbaz said. People who have had their identities stolen, accounts hacked or data leaked also tend to see how their search engine choice can affect their actual lives. “That group has become way more mainstream than five years ago,” he said.
Neeva is perhaps the most adventurous new search engine business model.
Other players in the market take it as a given that advertising and affiliate marketing will account for revenue. It’s hard enough to compete with Google without adding a cost barrier. But Neeva has a subscription business.
Ad-supported search engines inevitably favor advertisers over the users’ interests, Neeva CEO Ramaswamy told AdExchanger. Ads start to chase you around the web, or grow to resemble organic results. “With Neeva, you never have to think, ‘Is this an affiliate link?’”
Neeva still has free access. Ramaswamy said the subscription gating will roll out in the coming months, and will eventually settle around $5 per month.
Each user’s monthly allotment is shared out among news publishers and other sites that partner with Neeva to appear in results, based on their site traffic from the search engine.
The company had 10,000 users as of July after a yearlong test mode.
Many of the early adopters have come from PR efforts, Ramaswamy said. Neeva hasn’t run any ads. Parents like the clean, more controlled search experience, he said, and are willing to pay for an alternative. And one surprise segment is seniors. Many online scams that target seniors start with ads for searches for device and software support.
The browser company Brave acquired a search engine startup called Tailcat in March and launched the beta version of its repurposed search product in June.
Brave Search, as it’s known, will have ad-supported and ad-free tiers. It will also be built into the Brave browser in unique ways. For one thing, starting later this year, it will be the default search service in the Brave browser, which has 32 million monthly users, CEO Brendan Eich told AdExchanger. Brave Search had more than 100,000 Brave users sign up as early users of the search product, a user base that’s important as the company hones its algorithm.
“People are willing to try us because we’re private, we’re taking a swing at the Big Tech monopolist, and they’re game to help us get better,” Eich said.
Many people confuse the browser and the search engine, he said. The two aren’t intrinsically connected, though Google creates a powerful synergy between Chrome and its search ads business. The search engine and browser are “flip sides of the same coin.”
Brave still needs to iron out advertising deals, Eich said. But the company is “crypto first” and will integrate its browser cryptocurrency, the Brave Browser Attention Tokens, so users can earn rewards from seeing search ads – a service it already offers for its browser homepage ads.
Can anyone do it? Can any of these companies dent Google’s search engine market share or search advertising business?
The answer is no.
To put DuckDuckGo’s $100 million annual earnings in perspective, Google’s search ad business added $13 billion in the past year and earned more than $29 billion in Q2 alone.
However, the search engine market is immensely valuable, so a startup like DuckDuckGo can be profitable and grow steadily despite Google’s dominance. Privacy-minded users and people who are anxious about online security are now a meaningful market in their own right.
And there will be other ways rival search engines attract activist or philosophical users. Brave’s Eich pointed to how other privacy-focused search services (namely, DuckDuckGo) censor queries and images like the Tiananmen Square “Tank Man” – the famous photo of a nonviolent Chinese activist – because their search index uses Microsoft Bing, which must conciliate the Chinese government.
But even if Google remains the search engine of choice, more people are testing the waters than you might think:
“By the way, 10% of the population in the US tries a new search engine every month,” Neeva’s Ramaswamy told AdExchanger. “So there is active churn.”
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