Analysis: What’s Cooler than Cuil? Ice Cold – What Today’s New Flawed Search Engine Says about the Future of Search and the Longing for Change

Written By Noah Mallin | July 28, 2008 | 1 Comment


You would think that a cure for cancer had been announced this morning, what with all the attention that new search engine Cuil has garnered. You might even think it was the “Google-killer” that “Out-Googled Google” but you’d be wrong once again. The teeth-grindingly poor name aside (it’s the tool that’s pronounced like “cool”, fool) as just about everyone who’s tried it will tell you, it just doesn’t work that well. At least not as well as Google. If you’re going to shoot at the king, you had better not miss.

So what’s all the hubbub, Bub? It doesn’t hurt that a team of ex-Google folks including former ranking expert Anna Patterson are behind Cuil. There’s also the fashionable black homepage – you know, for Goths. Still I can’t help but think that all the initial excitement over Cuil (enough to crash the site this morning) is about the desire to see someone, anyone, mount a real challenge to Google’s search engine dominance. There were plenty of folks aside from Flickr founder Stewart Butterfield who wish that Microsoft had been successful in their bid for Yahoo, if only for the sake of balance.

Google climbed over the bodies of HotBot and AltaVista and clawed their way to the primo spot by being more innovative and focused than anyone else in search. As the competition fades or gets co-opted (talkin’ bout you, Yahoo) Google’s innovations run the risk of becoming more centered on increasing their revenue flow rather than the user experience. Therefore when a possible giant-killer comes along, everyone wants to take a try behind the wheel.

Sadly, as has been reported throughout the webisphere, Cuil comes up woefully short as even a simple comparative vanity search proved to me. The three column layout is hard to follow and comprehend quickly, nor does switching to two column mode help much. The big selling point of the Cuil crew was that they had indexed many more pages than Google has. As our esteemed Dr. Naveel pointed out to me, this means little if the indexed pages aren’t relevant. As I’ve been reminded all too often, size isn’t everything.

Most troubling were the weird irrelevant pictures which showed up next to relevant results and weird irrelevant results which showed up next to… nothing. The ever-insightful Saul Hansell who does the Bits blog for The New York Times suggests today that like Patterson’s former company, the final (and perhaps original) outcome for Cuil will be to be acquired. Ironically what Hansell correctly tags as their biggest innovation- more indexing on the cheap using fewer computers- may be their fatal Achilles heel.

Reprise Media Account Director Chase Wells pointed me to a CNET posting that pretty effectively picks apart Cuil’s fewer computer strategy as the cause of many user’s oddball search results. The incredibly bad news is that the more people use the system, the more likely the results are to be off kilter. On the other hand this leads Cuil to be, at least today, a sort of Google dissatisfaction meter. If you search for “piranha” and get entries on the fish or even the Joe Dante movie Google’s doing a-OK, if you get back results on piñatas there’s some migration going on and if you end up with results on the guy who played Mr. Belding on “Saved by The Bell” it might be time to sell your Google stock.

What Cuil’s shortcomings have done is to highlight where the search industry is already going thanks in part to Google: It’s not about rank anymore, it’s about relevance. At first blush Cuil’s magazine-style layout seems to be the ultimate validation of this – letting the eye roam from one side of the page to the other and the user to determine from a pool of results that seem relatively rank-free. However, allowing irrelevant information to float around sans ranking hierarchy is a far cry from actual relevance-based results.

Google still does relevance better than anyone. Ranking may be becoming increasingly more subjective depending on the user and the query but having a hierarchical-based results page helps the user get what they need fast. At the end of the day relevance trumps all, whether you have information you’d like to be found by searchers, you are the one doing the searching, or you’re the engine where it all happens.

One Response to “Analysis: What’s Cooler than Cuil? Ice Cold – What Today’s New Flawed Search Engine Says about the Future of Search and the Longing for Change”

  1. [...] won’t waste more virtual ink on this one – you can see our initial take here. Now the question is – who will buy Cuil and when? Nice launch publicity though, shame about the [...]

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