Searching for Cuil â€" Google Alum Competes (UPDATED)

Cuil logoToday's the day that Cuil -- pronounced "cool" -- goes live. Started by Anna Patterson, who sold her previous search technology to Google in 2004 and then went to work there, the new engine claims well over 121 billion pages indexed. Backed by $33 billion in venture money, the index is having problems already. As Larry Dignandid, I almost automatically tried searching for my own name, which on Google results in something like 17,000 hits for all of us sharing the same moniker. On Cuil? Nada. There were those who pushed even more on the engine, to find it wanting. And as of the time I write this, if you search Cuil for cuil.com, the search engine doesn't seem to recognize itself.

I'm sure it's something that they will work out -- jeez, I hopethey can work it out -- but, lordy, what a bad way to start. Who isn't going to jump into that socio-tech game of "How many times do you pop up?"

According to at least one analyst, Google has nothing to worry about on principle:

Google has become so synonymous with Internet search that it may no longer matter how good Cuil or any other challenger is, said Gartner Inc. analyst Allen Weiner."Search has become as much about branding as anything else," Weiner said. "I doubt (Cuil) will be keeping anyone at Google awake at night."

Google welcomed Cuil to the fray with its usual mantra about its rivals. "Having great competitors is a huge benefit to us and everyone in the search space," [Google spokesperson Katie] Watson said. "It makes us all work harder, and at the end of the day our users benefit from that."

But this will be the first time that Google has battled a general-purpose search engine created by its own alumni. It probably won't be the last time, given that Google now has nearly 20,000 employees.

Talk about creating a breeding ground for competitors. But I don't actually agree with the branding point, because branding is nothing more or less than the distillation of customer perceptions and that can be fragile.

Not too many years ago, the "in" engine was AltaVista, because you'd get more results than with the others. Along came Google, and AltaVista exited, stage left. The barrier to entry into the game is relatively low, and it's easy for users to switch allegiance without a penny of penalty. Should Cuil deliver far more than Google, then the users will start gravitating. If they do, the ad money will eventually follow them.

Cuil's interface is certainly clean, reformatting between a two- and three-column layout at the click of a button, and that's on my painfully slow, I-really-live-out-in-the-sticks dial-up connection. Tabs to help clarify searches and drill-down menus to get more accurate and relevant results are nice touches.

But the engine does have the drawbacks of missing advanced search capabilities and that little detail of a completely functioning and reliable index. And that gets to a lesson that Cuil teaches: Technology is great, but people buy benefits, whether practical or, far more often, emotional. If you can't get the operational issues squared away quickly, you may never get a second chance with customers. You don't have to be the best, but you have to take the time to do your best by them. And if not, well, you can always hope that Microsoft or Yahoo will acquire you.

Update:

I just tried another self-centered test and found that Cuil now brings up 21,222 matches for my name while Google is at 17,200. Larry Dignon's name brings up 136,000 on Google (I'm jealous) and 14,618 on Cuil. TechCrunch's "dog" test still had 489 million on Google, but now Cuil's is 878,871,250. Google's still ahead on "apple" (569 million to just under 250 million). Clearly some changes are going on at high speed (and I'm sure Mr. Dignan's count will soon be leaving me in the dust on Cuil, but I'll enjoy it while I can).

It's not surprising, and perhaps there was no way to work out the bugs before going live. But if you want to see some smart, user-centric design, try the apple query and look for the categories above the listings and in a box on the right. (There are even listings for the fruit and candy apples, but you have to click on the more button.)

One thing I'm noticing is that there often is little connection between a listing and an image accompanying it. But this looks like a competitor to watch. Now it should start to watch itself ... literally. Cuil.com still doesn't turn up after you search for the site.

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