SEO tool Ahrefs invests $60M in building creator-friendly search engine, ‘Yep’

Well, this is straight from the desk of “didn’t see that coming,” but search engine toolkit company Ahrefs just told me they’ve been working on their very own search engine on the sly, plowing $60 million of resources into its own search engine, called Yep. It’s a unique proposition, running its own search index, rather than relying on APIs from Google or Bing.

As for the name? I dunno; Yep seems pretty daft to me, but I guess at least the name is one character shorter than Bing, the other major search engine I’ll only ever use by accident. Name aside, Yep is taking a fresh new path through the world of internet advertising, claiming that it’s giving 90% of its ad revenues to content creators. The pitch is pretty elegant:

“Let’s say that the biggest search engine in the world makes $100B a year. Now, imagine if they gave $90B to content creators and publishers,” the company paints a picture of the future it wants to live in. “Wikipedia would probably earn a few billion dollars a year from its content. They’d be able to stop asking for donations and start paying the people who polish their articles a decent salary.”

It’s an impressively quixotic windmill to fight for the bootstrapped company Ahrefs. Its CEO sheds some light on why this makes sense to him:

“Creators who make search results possible deserve to receive payments for their work. We saw how YouTube’s profit-sharing model made the whole video-making industry thrive. Splitting advertising profits 90/10 with content authors, we want to give a push towards treating talent fairly in the search industry,” says Ahrefs founder and CEO, Dmytro Gerasymenko, and continues to make the point that his search engine is meant to be heavily privacy-forward. “We do save certain data on searches, but never in a personally identifiable way. For example, we will track how many times a word is searched for and the position of the link getting the most clicks. But we won’t create your profile for targeted advertising.”

Perhaps it sounds a little idealistic, but damn it, that’s what made me excited about Yep in the first place. It represents the faintest of echoes from a web more innocent and more hopeful than the social-media poisoned cesspool of chaos and fake news we often find ourselves in today.

I was a little surprised to learn that the company decided to spin up its own data centers — it claims it has more than 1,000 servers already spun up, storing more than 100 petabytes of data. It’s an odd choice, given that cloud-based solutions are usually more flexible, but Gerasymenko has a plan for that too, claiming that they are much more expensive for such extensive infrastructure, with a goal of hundreds or thousands of high-end servers running under full load 24/7.

Of course, this whole project didn’t start with a search engine — the company already had a huge dataset available from its day-to-day business. Ahrefs has been crawling and storing data about the web for 12 years to provide its customers with its core product: an SEO toolset. The search results are powered by its own crawler — AhrefsBot — which the company claims visits more than 8 billion web pages every 24 hours. The company claims the new search engine will be available in all countries and in most languages.

So, er, $60 million without external investment? That’s a lot of dough — where did it all come from? The company explains that it re-invested its revenues from its paid subscriptions. The company claims it currently has $100 million worth of revenues per year from its more than 50,000 customers, and has shunned external investment so far. The company has 90 employees and is headquartered in Singapore. The search engine project has a team of 11 — including data scientists, backend engineers and front-end developers. Gerasymenko himself is playing an active role in building the search engine, the company tells me.