Media & Entertainment

Verbase Is A Search Startup Using ‘No Ads’ To Lure Users To Fire Its Crowdsourced Engines


Has Google done enough annoying stuff to drive users elsewhere in search of other, less privacy-trampling search engines? Security focused rival DuckDuckGo apparently got a post-Snowden bump, as some users switched to punish Google for participation in the NSA’s Prism data collection program. So there would seem to be a degree of scope for user churn away from search category leaders. Perhaps more scope for alternative search engines than in a long time.

Add to that, privacy-trampling isn’t the only complaint people have about Google either. Its penchant for self-focused spam by seeding organic search results with its own vertical services has drawn ire in Europe. The European Commission is currently undertaking an antitrust probe to consider whether Google’s search results are biased — i.e. by the company injecting its own content at the top of results, and pushing down rivals’. ‘Don’t be evil’ never looked so sardonic.

It’s Mountain View’s penchant for larding search results with increasing amounts of spam (its own, and paying advertisers’) that Hong Kong based startup Verbase — which currently bills itself as “a search engine with clean and pure results” — reckons gives it a chance to inch into a market so sewn up by Google that few would bother to even try.

Antoine Sorel Neron, founder and CEO of Verbase, cites a 2012 Pew study that suggests nine percent of search engine users aren’t always finding what they’re looking for when they go a-hunting data on the Internet. Of course, that still leaves a massive majority — 91% — who are getting the info they seek from Google et al so presumably aren’t crying out for alternatives.

Indeed, the same Pew report goes on to note:

 Asked which search engine they use most often, 83% of search users say Google.  The next most cited search engine is Yahoo, mentioned by just 6% of search users.

Verbase is clearly not afraid of a daunting challenge, then. That said, Neron stresses his search engine is not actually trying to compete directly with Google. Because, well, that doesn’t make a lot of business sense when so many users (apparently) remain satisfied with Google. But he does believe there is a niche to be carved out for a different approach to search — to try to serve that fractional minority who purportedly aren’t finding what they’re after with the current search tools.

“With Google, you might see a whole page of ads before you even get to any organic search results,” says Neron. “It actually makes for a biased search experience and it’s to the detriment of users.”

How exactly is Verbose different to other search engines? It’s taking a crowdsourced approach to improve the relevance and type of search results it returns. Verbase is using Yahoo’s API to provide initial search results but then adds its own special (de-biasing) sauce on top in the form of an algorithm designed to filter out spam. Plus, it’s also factoring in its own users’ interactions to rate search results and (hopefully) improve relevance. This crowdsourced element should improve over time, says Neron.

“We don’t need to be as big or as publicly held as Google,” he adds, pointing out that crowd-powered vertical search engines are already successful for products such as YouTube, Google Maps and Waze (albeit, all those products are now owned by Mountain View). Verbox

Verbase users can directly rate search results, by clicking on the Verbox button next to a result and making their vote on its relevance/usefulness (choosing from a word list, which also displays other users’ preferences as percentages as an additional crowdpowered guide).

The search engine also lets users filter search manually by selecting categories after they search to help narrow down results — which helps feed more human-powered relevance data into Verbase’s own database, so it can keep improving.

Users can also create content for particular search queries themselves (via the Bases tab), and sign up to live online chat events that could be attached to search queries (as another way to locate sought-after info).

The basic idea for the crowdsourced element is to supplement algorithmic search with human-centric content creation and discovery, says Neron. “We provide more than one way to find what you’re looking for — allowing you to engage with information that’s not just a page of links,” he tells TechCrunch.

However, Verbase is by no means the first to think of crowdsourcing as a mean to improve search algorithms. One high profile earlier attempt that springs to mind — the Wikia Search project (backed by Jimmy Wales) — deadpooled in 2009, after just over a year trying and failing to make it stick. Bottom line: you need an awful lot of users to make crowd-powered search fly.

So, unsurprisingly, the Bases and Chatbases aspects of Verbase look very threadbare indeed at this early stage in its development. Verbase launched in beta at the start of this year.

Discussing usage, Neron says it fielded some 50,000 unique searches last month. With spam and adverts to be kept out of results in the short term, he’s hoping it can keep pushing that figure up to reach a point where it can start to generate useful crowd-powered results, and give its users some genuinely relevant social search results (rather than just a few Google+ pages, a la Google).

Neron notes that Google’s marketshare of the search engine space has been flat for a few years. And then of course there’s PRISM- and privacy-gate to perhaps make people think about alternatives. Not that Verbase is billing itself as a privacy-focused search engine, like DuckDuckGo. Rather it’s playing the anti-spam, anti-advertising card for now, while it waits to see if it can accrue enough users to build its Mechanical Turk, crowd-powered engines.

Verbase’s business model will require ads to be incorporated into results in future — Neron is up front about that. But, in the meantime, its users get to enjoy an ad-free search life. And when adverts do come to Verbase they will be kept entirely separate from search results, says Neron, likely sectioned off to the right-hand side in a separate pane, rather than being allowed to contaminate the main feed.

Answering the charge that it’s a hopeless task to wade into a pool that already contains such a vast, well-resourced competitor, Neron is upbeat. “A search engine is a very viable effort if it’s made in the right way because this market is so big,” he says, adding: “It’s a huge market opportunity. All of the major competition are putting ads at the top of results.”

Albeit, he needs to be upbeat, having put in around $120,000 of his own money to fund Verbase since development work started, back in 2011. If the fledgling search startup can keep attracting users, he says it will likely look to raise external funding next year.

To hammer home Neron’s point about ‘spam free’, here’s the results Verbase returned when I searched for the following query: ‘what is Bitcoin’:


And here are the results I could see on my laptop screen (i.e. as above, without scrolling down to see more results) when performing the same search query on Google:

Google Bitcoin search results

Google spammy? Absolutely.

The question is whether enough people notice such a strong smell of spam issuing from Mountain View that they go seeking alternative search tools. Verbase will certainly be hoping that a disgruntled nine percent end up knocking on its door.

More TechCrunch

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

16 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

3 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

3 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data