Cuil Finally Gets Going

These days, anyone starting a search-related effort almost certainly has to deal with the G-Factor. Are they trying to take on Google? How are they going to beat that awesome search-and-advertising money machine from Mountain View, Calif.? It is hardly a surprise that Anna Patterson, president and co-founder of Menlo Park, Calif.-based Cuil (pronounced cool), has been fielding those questions from the media, as the company gets ready to launch on Monday, July 28.

The company, which has raised about $33 million in two rounds of founding from Madrone Capital Partners, Tugboat Ventures and Greylock Partners, has been the subject of much speculation in Silicon Valley, mostly because of founders’ (Patterson, Tom Costello and Russell Power) pedigrees — not to mention some well-known search luminaries who have joined the company.

Patterson, for instance, was the technical lead of Googlebase and helped form Google’s TeraGoogle search index. She had worked at Archives.org before joining Google. Costello had developed an early version of WebFountain. Power also worked on TeraGoogle. Former Altavista CTO Louis Monier is also at Cuil. The company had gotten into a spot of bother earlier this year when it started to crawl in what can be described as an ungentlemanly manner, prompting a few thousand sites to ban its crawler. Despite all that, it is still one of the more interesting companies to watch.

During his keynote address at a search industry trade show earlier this year, Monier had noted that “search engines can be used for more than just navigation.” It is becoming increasingly evident that the battle of navigation has been all but won by Google. However, Monier and his cohorts at Cuil are betting that the company can use new information retrieval-and-dissemination technologies to overcome the information overload on the Internet.

My big belief is that “serendipity” is the right way to go as we continue to get immersed (and drowned) in information. From that perspective, Cuil might be on the right track. Patterson stopped by at our San Francisco offices last week to give us a brief overview of the company and how it works.

How it works is that company has an index of around 120 billion pages (which is a lot smaller that what Google claims) that is sorted on dedicated machines, each one tasked with conducting topic-specific search — for instance, health, sports or travel. This approach allows them to sift through the web faster (and probably cheaper) than Google, which still enjoys a huge infrastructure advantage over its rivals. The results of those specific searches are then funneled to the search results page, which looks more like a magazine web site than the search results page we are so used to seeing on, say, Google or Yahoo.

I have no clarity on Cuil’s infrastructure; we couldn’t get into the details because our meeting was quite brief. I do know that while indexing is the easy part, analyzing and displaying all the information is extremely resource-intensive and was one of the main reasons why Powerset took Microsoft’s money.

The search results showed off by the company executives seemed pretty accurate and useful, but since I didn’t get to test them myself, I can’t vouch for their veracity. When I asked Patterson about the challenge of consumer adoption, she countered that most people are willing to try new search services. She feels confident that searching on Cuil will win them over.

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