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Hulbee Bags $9M To Grow Its Pro-Privacy Search Engine

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Swiss-based semantic search company Hulbee, which launched a consumer search engine in the U.S. this August, has closed a $9 million angel funding.

The investors are not being disclosed beyond the firm saying one is a serial entrepreneur from Switzerland and the other is a business person from Canada.

Hulbee is positioning its consumer search offering as a pro-privacy alternative to mainstream search engines like Google, with a pledge that unlike those guys it does not track users. So it’s competing with other search players in the pro-privacy space, such as DuckDuckGo.

Although, unlike DDG, it has its own (semantic) search tech too — which it’s touting as another differentiator, along with a “clean interface”, and search results supplemented by a word cloud of related themes/content that allow users to narrow their search with a few considered clicks. Hulbee

It also has its own ad system, rather than bolting on a third party ad network. And again here it’s taking a non-tracking approach. Ads on Hulbee are targeted based on the search query, according to CEO Andreas Wiebe, so there’s no geotargeting or cumulative tracking. (Although users can specify their region in order to ensure more relevant search results, so it may have basic country data. And once you step off Hulbee and onto whatever website you were trying to find chances are their ad networks will start tracking you, unless you’re running an ad blocker…)

“Unlike Google’s offering, Hulbee doesn’t fall back on surveillance, so there’s no geotargeting. For Hulbee, the user is completely invisible,” says Wiebe. “Hulbee only focuses on the search query, and definitely doesn’t know where it’s from or who entered it.”

“The fundamental idea… is to win over consumers who prioritize ownership of their data. We recognize that most consumers do not want to be tracked,” he adds.

Such a partial view of the user does not lend itself to highly targeted ‘interest-based advertising’ — so Hulbee is also focusing on touting a brand-building proposition to advertisers (hence the Coca-Cola graphic in the word cloud, above right).

“Unlike traditional search engines, we don’t focus on highly focused targeting, but instead specialize in ‘mass informing’ of our visitors, including image, brand name, event advertising. Thus, we obviously will be interested, for example, in global companies launching a new brand or product, such as the film industry promoting the new movies or an event tie-in,” says Wiebe.

“We’re dealing with fairly sophisticated visitors. Although we do not track and don’t ‘know’ our visitors, we can say with certainty that our user is a person following modern trends in such areas as information security, privacy, etc. That user is concerned about their own privacy, weighing the aspects of their web activity and understanding the consequences and risks of certain actions.”

As well as aiming to appeal to individuals with concerns about their privacy, the search engine is being targeted at parents with concerns about the kind of content their kids might be exposed to online — given it has a built-in filter for violent and pornographic content.

Hulbee is not a startup, having spent 15 years working on semantic search for the b2b space, and selling enterprise-grade search and data analytics to European companies. But it is relatively new to the consumer space — launching a Swiss search engine, called Swisscows.ch, in June 2014 as a first step.

In these post-Snowden tech times, it reckons there’s a fresh opportunity to differentiate on privacy and security grounds vs dominant consumer search players (Google has a circa 90 per cent share of the search market in Europe). And notes, for instance, that its servers are located in Switzerland, so away from the prying eyes of the NSA — or indeed the European Union.

The angel funding will specifically be used to expand its consumer search engine, according to Wiebe. “We have a big mountain to climb with a lot of competitors,” he admits. “[We’ll use the] money to continue to building and develop our search engine for consumers.”

After launching its consumer search engine in the U.S. this summer it added 30 more markets in September, and is now available in 60 countries. It’s not breaking out user data at this stage but says Swisscows.ch is processing more than five million queries per month, while Hulbee.com is processing more than eight million search queries monthly.

The company is also planning to step up its enterprise search activity, with the launch of an enterprise search product specifically targeted at medium and small companies planned for this later month, and an enterprise search engine that aims to compete with Microsoft, Google and HP slated for November.