Challenger search engine Neeva wants to replace the familiar “10 blue links” in search results with something more fitting for the modern AI age.
Back in December, Neeva co-founder and CEO Sridhar Ramaswamy, who previously spearheaded Google’s advertising tech business, teased new “cutting edge AI” and large language models (LLMs), positioning itself against the ChatGPT hype train.
“ChatGPT cannot give you real time data or fact verification,” Ramaswamy wrote at the time. “In our upcoming upgrades, Neeva can.”
Fast-forward to January, and Neeva formally launched NeevaAI to the U.S. market, pitched as “authentic, real-time AI search.” While it was technically possible for users around the globe to access NeevaAI before now, it required a little jiggery-pokery in the account settings, involving changing language and location preferences. Today, however, NeevaAI is officially rolling out internationally to logged-in users, including Canada, the U.K., Germany, France and Spain. Additionally, the Neeva search engine itself (not NeevaAI) will be rolling out to Australia and New Zealand.
The timing of today’s announcement is particularly notable, coming a week after Microsoft reignited the search engine wars with the introduction of ChatGPT to its Bing search engine and, with it, the promise of a completely reimagined search experience.
What the ChatGPT?
Most years can pretty much be defined by at least one over-arching tech trend. In 2022, web3 was one of the big buzzwords in town, with the metaverse and tangential immersive technologies also jostling for mindshare. While there is nothing to indicate that such trends will wither any time soon, it’s clear from the first six weeks of the new year that generative AI will be the big talking point of 2023.
Generative AI, essentially, describes the process of using algorithms to create (“generate”) new content. The poster child of this movement is ChatGPT, a chatbot-style technology trained on large language models (LLMs) capable of producing scarily good (but far from flawless) work such as essays, articles, poems, lyrics and even computer programs. The handiwork of OpenAI, a Microsoft-backed artificial intelligence (AI) research body, ChatGPT has taken the world by storm since its prototype was first introduced back in November, with some arguing that its launch signals AI’s arrival into the mainstream.
With OpenAI already commercializing the service through a premium subscription, the mighty Google last week scrambled into action to unveil a new “experimental conversational AI service” called Bard, showcasing how AI might transform search engines by powering synthesized responses collated from multiple sources to provide more nuanced answers to online queries. And that is what Microsoft actually launched two days later — an all-new incarnation of Bing powered by a more advanced version of ChatGPT, customized for real-time search.
Rather than serving the usual laddered list of links, the new AI-infused search engine takes a request, scans for answers and generates a response replete with citations to the original sources.
And this, effectively, is what Neeva is now bringing to international markets, a month on from its U.S. launch.
The story so far
By way of a brief recap, Mountain View, California-based Neeva first launched a subscription-only search engine in its domestic U.S. market in June 2021, and later went on to add a free “basic” tier to the mix with certain restrictions in place. The company brought the search engine to Europe back in October, and has since rolled it out to additional markets around the world.
Neeva’s core selling point is that it doesn’t monetize through advertising, and it prevents third-party trackers from using personal data to display personalized ads — Neeva wants to make money through good old-fashioned paid subscriptions.
An ad-free search environment means that users don’t have to scroll through myriad sponsored results to get to the organic links they want. However, Neeva’s basic look-and-feel is much the same as search engines have been since before even Google arrived on the scene — row after row of links to individual sources, with a few aesthetic deviations thrown into the mix.
But with NeevaAI, the startup is looking to do its part in reinvent search.
TechCrunch has been dabbling with NeevaAI over the past few weeks, and from our tests it performed pretty impressively, comfortably handling questions such as “Why were the Beatles so big?” or “What is the world 5k [running] record?,” with Neeva generating a response from multiple cited sources in real time.
These citations are key to avoiding the “black box” controversies that engulf many AI technologies. The idea here is that by showing people where it’s sourcing its information from, this not only promotes transparency, but also gives those who have published content to the web the credit they deserve and increases their chances of follow-on referral traffic.
But some questions it simply isn’t equipped to deal with. In those cases, it defaults to the familiar website-specific links and excerpts for users to peruse and figure out the answer for themselves.
In an interview with TechCrunch for this story, Ramaswamy explained some of the rationale that went into developing NeevaAI, including how it decides when and where to generate answers from multiple sources.
“Roughly speaking, it works for questions that we can find authority websites that answer that question,” Ramaswamy explained.
So, unlike many of the quirky examples we’ve seen so far of ChatGPT being tasked with writing lyrics in the style of Nick Cave, for instance, NeevaAI won’t help you here. Likewise, if you ask it a trick question — deliberately or otherwise — it likely won’t return an answer, reverting to the usual list of links for you to research yourself.
“Our goal with NeevaAI was to — first and foremost — be fail-safe, we don’t want to be telling you incorrect things,” Ramaswamy continued. “So we opted for safety in how we retrieve (information).”
An example here might be if someone was to ask NeevaAI when Boris Johnson served as the king of the United Kingdom, rather than the more accurate question of when he served as prime minister. It’s the sort of question that could potentially trick any search engine, because there will undoubtedly be pages on the internet that contain all the words in the question — so the onus is very much on NeevaAI to ensure that it understands the question, and gives an appropriate response. Or no response at all, which is what it will do with questions where it’s not confident of the answer.
Clearly, NeevaAI’s response here isn’t perfect. A smarter response — one that a human would undoubtedly deliver — would be to tell the user that Boris Johnson wasn’t in fact the king, but he did serve as prime minister. Or at the very least, generate a more satisfactory response that steers the user to refine the question. And this is something that could come to NeevaAI in a future iteration, though what form this ultimately takes isn’t clear.
“If you ask it some some silly question, it’s just not going to say anything because there’s nothing on the web that suggests that this is true or false,” Ramaswamy said. “So when there’s not an answer to be had, we decline to answer. But we will be fixing that soon.”
State of play
TechCrunch’s conversation with Ramaswamy took place before Bing’s big reveal last week, so today’s expansion into global markets has a slightly different feel to it than it might’ve done prior to the knowledge that Microsoft was basically doing the same thing — with billions more dollars in its coffers to help. And it’s clear now that Google will be doing something similar in the future.
Elsewhere, other search engine upstarts are following a similar trajectory to that of Neeva. Back in December, venture-backed You.com launched similar ChatGPT-style AI smarts to that of Neeva.
It’s clear that Neeva has its work cut out if it’s to differentiate in a market that includes long-established billion-dollar incumbents, and other agile startups, with much the same goals. However, Neeva is hopeful that its ad-free approach will win it enough supporters to see it flourish more generally as a search engine, at a time when the world has grown increasingly weary of big tech’s big data harnessing. The likes of You.com doesn’t yet deliver ads, but it has said it may offer “non-privacy invading” ads in the future.
But more than all that, Neeva is betting on its future by developing its own search stack, rather than leaning on the same engine used by Google or Microsoft’s Bing, as most other challengers do.
None of this is to say, however, that Neeva is an entirely independent, self-sufficient entity. While it is pushing toward relying entirely on its own search stack, for now it does lean on Bing for some web search activity. And specific to NeevaAI, Ramaswamy confirmed that it works with “large language model companies” including OpenAI’s GPT-3.5 and Claude from the heavily-venture backed Anthropic, which was founded by former OpenAI employees.
“We use them for things like generating training data for us, and sometimes we will make calls to them to help with the summaries,” Ramaswamy said. “Most models we use for NeevaAI are our own — we pre-train or fine-tune them for custom tasks like question-answering or summarization.”
Founded four years ago, Neeva has taken on some $77.5 million in venture capital funding from Silicon Valley VC heavyweights, including Sequoia Capital and Greylock. So while it is up against the likes of Google and Microsoft, among other well-funded startups, it’s not exactly without friends and finances itself.
Irrespective of where Neeva goes from here, it’s clear that 2023 is shaping up to be a big year for generative AI, evidenced by the likes of Shutterstock’s recently-launched toolkit for creating stock images based on text prompts.
Similarly, Neeva has no plans to limit the scope of its AI endeavors to simple search engine-based information retrieval, and is likely to expand into related verticals in the future.
“Vivek [Neeva co-founder Vivek Raghunathan] and I are like kids in a candy shop, we don’t know what to work on next,” Ramaswamy joked. “There’s just so much — simple, natural follow-on things. Generative AI is one direction, doing site-specific search is another super-interesting direction. These are things that are easily adjacent to what we’re doing.”
NeevaAI is available today in English for logged-in users on both the free and premium plans in the U.K. and Canada, as well as local language incarnations in Germany, France, and Spain.