Algorithms are funny. Build a great one, as Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock recommendations Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) and Akamai Technologies (Nasdaq: AKAM ) have, and billions of dollars usually follow. Build a poor one, and ... well, there's always cocktail-party stories of how you once worked on the Next Big Thing (NBT).
With all the press Cuil (pronounced "Cool") is getting, you'd think the upstart search engine is already the Next Big Thing; a digital property so hot that Wired's editors must be salivating. Well, they shouldn't be.
A comedy of digital errors
"I thought the layout for cuil.com was innovative. The search results, however, were inferior enough in my 10 minutes of play with it that I'll have to be somehow convinced to ever return again," wrote Fool.com co-founder and Chief Rule Breaker David Gardner yesterday, in a comment on another CAPS player's blog. "I tried 'rule breakers' on both, and the difference in terms of relevance and currency was extreme. Cuil.com essentially had a large list of links to our 1999 book. Google had the tags for Rule Breakers on CAPS, link to the Rule Breakers service, etc. One was so 1999, the other so 2008."
My experience mirrors David's, only worse. A quick vanity search -- oh come on, you know you do it, too -- yielded zero results. None. Nada. Bupkus. Now, I'm no Paris Hilton, but I have written more than 1,000 articles for The Motley Fool since 2003. On Google, that rates more than 9,400 hits.
Other times, Cuil was simply unavailable. Or loaded pages that appeared as if they would have yielded results if the hamsters running themselves ragged at HQ hadn't fallen off their wheels. A company representative told me via email that Cuil's servers had been swamped, which affected their ability to serve results.
"We're working on it and will get better," the email concludes. I've no doubt he's right; Cuil will get better with time and, when it does, it'll have a small effect on the search business.
The search for search
By "small," I mean, "a little better than barely noticeable." Think about how Cuil searches. Is the search itself better? Or are the results presented in a different and perhaps better format, as David suggests? I'd say it's the latter, and that is what's so darn disappointing.
Cuil is an indexer; a Google clone that decided to sift through three times more of the Web's garbage than others have. What's to stop Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) , Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) , or IAC's (Nasdaq: IACI ) Ask.com from doing the same? Answer: Nothing.
Contrast that with what Powerset has created. With its engine, users search Wikipedia via direct, plain-English queries. The experience almost makes real the semantic Web, which you can think of as the ship's computer in Star Trek: I ask a direct question, I get a direct answer. Cuil, like Google, doesn't provide that yet.
Where Cuil may prove useful is in organizing data for use in other software. But here, too, Google has an edge via its applications and partnerships with platform biggies salesforce.com (NYSE: CRM ) and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) . What chance does Cuil search have of making it on the iPhone when Google Maps, and thereby Google search, is already embedded?
Not much. DoubleGoo understands that by creating software that aids with the management of data (i.e., Maps, YouTube, Applications, etc.), it's enhancing its core data collection (i.e., search) business. At a recent Fortune conference, company vice president Marissa Mayer said that Google News is responsible for $100 million in search revenue.
Take a free product and make it profitable; that's what you do when you're a genuine Rule Breaker. Cuil, at least the one we know right now, is still a faker.