Neeva first look: What the ad-free Google Search alternative is like

Neeva is a privacy-first ad-free and tracking-free search engine created by ex-Googlers. The search engine is still being developed, is currently in the alpha stage, and requires an invite and onboarding experience to use it.

Neeva

Imagine being in an executive position at a giant corporation where your primary job was to manage and grow advertising revenue via its core product. Now imagine leaving that company to create a similar product, but one that eschews the previous business model and focuses on privacy and user experience instead. That’s exactly what Neeva co-founders Sridhar Ramaswamy and Vivek Raghunathan did with Neeva.

Ramaswamy was SVP of Ads at Google, and Raghunathan was VP of Monetization at YouTube. The two created a new search engine to serve users and only users. What makes Neeva different from Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and other search engines is that it’s privacy-first and ad-free. The search experience created by the Neeva product team also sets it apart from the competition.

Without the ability to monetize user data and show advertisements, Neeva must find a different source of revenue. Ramaswamy told Daisuke Wakabayashi at The New York Times that Neeva plans to make money on subscriptions from users paying for the service. The cost is expected to be less than $10/mo, and Ramaswamy hopes to lower it even more as they gain more subscribers.

Getting consumers to pay for something they’ve become accustomed to receiving for free will likely be a hard sell for most people. The company realizes that they’ll need to offer more than just privacy and no ads to get users to pay for their search engine. They’re betting that by creating a better and more personalized search experience, it will be enough to convince users to ditch Google as their default and primary search engine.

I’ve been testing Neeva since January 2021 and am impressed by what I’ve seen so far. Some of the search experiences are better and more optimized for the user than the ones provided by Google and other search engines. However, I have concerns about the long-term viability of how those experiences get and present their data, which I’ll discuss more throughout this article.

Neeva search start page

Neeva Home
Neeva Start Page

The start page for Neeva is fairly basic. It has quick access to settings and features, specifies your location, includes the local weather, and displays recent news. In its current iteration, it’s meant as a dispatch page where you could search, read news, or take some other action.

The news providers on the start page are customizable via Settings. Neeva has three options per news provider.

  1. Prefer More
  2. No Preference (the default choice)
  3. Prefer Less

The Prefer More option does what you would expect; it primarily shows articles from your preferred news publishers. Based on the phrasing used, one assumes that Prefer Less won’t completely exclude certain news sources if the content is relevant and important. If that’s the case, then I think that’s good.

There’s an opportunity for Neeva to leverage news personalization with machine learning (ML) to improve the articles it displays on the start page. I think they could take the start page even further by integrating more third-party data. For example, I could see making Neeva my browser’s start page if it acted as a personalized dashboard that displayed relevant news and had calendar events, Twitter mentions, new email messages, and site metrics from Fathom Analytics.

Making the start page a highly personalized and private digital life hub would make it worth paying for and establish itself as my default browser home page.

Third-Party integration

The idea of Neeva being a digital life hub isn’t far-fetched because they already support connecting third-party data to your account. They currently support the following connections:

If there is relevant data from the third-party connections, it appears first in search results.

Neeva Dropbox Integration
Dropbox results in Neeva search engine

You can also choose the Personal option to only display results from third-party connections.

Personal search results
Personal search results in Neeva

Like Apple’s Spotlight, there is a lot of utility in quickly searching multiple data sources in one location. The app FYI is a good example of a service that makes it possible to find files across multiple services quickly. Neeva is essentially doing the same thing, but perhaps even better. And if they add several more third-party integrations, I think the Personal search feature will help make Neeva’s subscription fee worth it.

Neeva My Business

Searching businesses is decent and somewhat familiar to what you would see on Google and other search engines.

Local restaurant search in Neeva
Searching for “pizza near me” in Neeva search engine

If you expand to the map view, you’ll discover that they’re using Google Maps. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and as long as Google is okay with it, why not.

Neeva uses Google Maps
Neeva search engine uses Google Maps

Searching for local businesses isn’t perfect, though. I searched for my favorite sushi restaurant, which has done whatever the opposite of SEO is. Their website never appeared in the search results, but Neeva did provide the option to search on DuckDuckGo and Google.

Neeva restaurant result
Searching for a local sushi restaurant in Neeva search engine

Clicking on Google opens a new tab with results from Google Search. Thanks to Google My Business, the restaurant had a Business Profile linked to the correct website.

Sushi restaurant on Google
Sushi restaurant result on Google Search

Neeva doesn’t appear to have an option like Google My Business yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they’re already working on one. I think some version of that will be crucial to their success.

Knowledge panels

Neeva has knowledge panels, and they look almost identical to Google’s knowledge panels. The biggest difference is that there isn’t an option to claim the knowledge panel.

Knowledge panel on Neeva
Knowledge panel on Neeva search engine

Code results

One of my favorite features of Neeva is how it returns results for code-related searches and categorizes each site.

Code search result on Neeva
Searching for code on Neeva search engine

Neeva assigns the following categories to code-related sites:

Results can be filtered by category, and most search snippets contain rich results that drill down into interactive knowledge panels.

Shopping

Neeva has put a significant amount of effort into helping its users research products. When you search for a product, the first results card says Expert Recommended, Products chosen by experts, not advertisers.

It displays product details from familiar publishers, and clicking on a result will display a knowledge panel with more details. While this user experience is informative and makes it so you don’t have to leave the search result page, it copies most of the relevant information from the publisher’s reviews. For example, in the CNET review for Best VPNs Services of 2021, the user can click on different VPN services, read the description, pros and cons, and other details without ever needing to visit the CNET article. Links to the publisher’s articles are also deemphasized and typically buried in the knowledge panels.

I think the way the shopping experience works now will create legal issues related to copyright with publishers, and they will likely block them from indexing and using their content.

Publishers make money from advertising and affiliate links, and this will likely be seen as content theft. This is a concern I communicated to Neeva when I first gained access to it in January, and they are aware of those concerns and plan to address them.

Recipes

Neeva approaches recipes similar to product-related searches. When you search for recipes, they provide the full ingredients and instructions, making it completely unnecessary to visit the publisher’s site. Like with product reviews, I think publishers will see this as content theft because it takes away their ability to monetize it.

On February 28, 2021, Recipeasly launched a site that collects recipes with the promise of no ads or life stories. That same day, Recipeasly received fierce backlash online and was accused of content theft. The mishap received international media attention, and they were forced to shut down the site the day it launched.

Neeva gets recipes from the same type of publishers Recipeasly did and returns and displays the same information without ads or life stories. I’m concerned that Neeva may experience the same backlash if something doesn’t change by the time they make the service widely available to the public.

Overall impression of Neeva

There’s a lot to like about Neeva and it’s the best search engine UX I’ve ever used.

Neeva feels more like an app than a search engine, and with more third-party integrations, I could see it becoming both a start page and a digital life hub. I especially like how it handles code-related searches.

General search results are good, but like DuckDuckGo, they still aren’t the same quality as Google’s organic results. I think they realize that which is why they include a “Find elsewhere” option high up on the first page of each search result that searches DuckDuckGo or Google.

Neeva’s biggest challenge will be with some of the features that set them apart. They’ve created an amazing experience for researching products and finding recipes, but I remain concerned about how publishers will react to it in its current form.

I look forward to seeing how the Neeva continues to iterate and solve problems. It’s certainly shaping up to be a search engine I would be willing to pay for.

Neeva Updates

Publisher content concerns

Shortly after publishing this article and sharing it on Twitter, Sridhar Ramaswamy, co-founder of Neeva, responded with a Quote Tweet stating they are addressing content creator monetization and having a more equitable relationship between Neeva and content creators is top of mind for us. More on that soon!

Sridhar Ramaswamy Quote Tweet
Sridhar Ramaswamy responding to publisher concerns on Twitter

When will Neeva launch?

Sridhar Ramaswamy stated on Twitter that Neeva is trying to launch in late Q2 of 2021.

Sridhar Ramaswamy says the Neeva Team is racing for a US launch late Q2!
Sridhar Ramaswamy specifies Neeva launch date on Twitter

Sign up for Neeva now using this invite link. The invitation will give you three months to trial Neeva.

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Jon is the founder of Coywolf and the EIC and the primary author reporting for Coywolf News. He is an industry veteran with over 25 years of digital marketing and internet technologies experience. Follow @henshaw