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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

With Friends Like Sarah Lacy, Cuill Needs No Enemies

Sarah Lacy's defense of Cuill suggests that the story they came out with should have been three of their main strengths (as opposed to "superior relevancy"). (Maybe it's just me not being knee-deep in relationships with VC-funded search startup pitchmen in the Valley, but the story that refuses to refer to the major user benefit - relevancy - is one that sounds like it's already grooming itself for acquisition.)

The story purportedly should have revolved around three Cuill strengths:
  • indexing more cheaply
  • the UI
  • privacy
Last things first. Privacy, as in destroying or not collecting user information, isn't a valuable innovation in "the Valley." It is a feature that any major search engine could (but won't) enable overnight. I salute Ixquick for being a major European-based metasearch engine for doing this. But it is a non-story in terms of search technology. A pretty minor attempt at differentiation, is all. Post acquisition, bye bye privacy.

Regarding the UI. A Valley insider recently expressed his frustration to me that search startups are still playing around with that layer. Although this type of tinkering takes longer to do than the privacy piece, it's another area any larger media company including a search company could tinker with. Users will benefit most from fundamental advances in relevancy technology, not UI presentation.

Cheaper indexing sounds like an interesting story. It's interesting basic research that could lend itself to tons of applications. It's too bad that to gain attention and funding for that type of basic research, Cuill had to go through the charade of a public launch of a new search engine that ordinary people were going to use.

The degree of difficulty of achieving even that innovative UI piece has proven to be very high, and Cuill has on its hands what looks like a public relations disaster. That's probably because too many of the insiders in the Valley were willing to give them encouragement and high fives, and the founders faced little or none of the withering criticism less connected entrepreneurs face in the chase for funding and first customers. At the very least the project should have stayed in private beta for a longer period of time. And maybe that "story" could have been ironed out better. Depending on how you interpret this relevant commentary from Mitch Joel, Cuill was either a victim of too much exuberant "Google killer" framing in mainstream press and blogs, or they actually encouraged it. Who knew that so much of the success of a new search engine is riding on public relations. Turns out less is more.

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