Challenger search engine Neeva wants to replace the well-known ’10 blue links’ in search results with something more appropriate for the modern AI era.
In December, Neeva co-founder and CEO Sridhar Ramaswamy, who previously spearheaded Google’s ad technology company, teased, new cutting edge AI and large language models (LLMs), positioning themselves 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 officially launched NeevaAI in the US market, pitched as “authentic, real-time AI search”. While it has so far been technically possible for users around the world to access NeevaAI, it took a bit of jiggery-pokery in the account settings, which involved changing language and location preferences. However, today NeevaAI is officially rolling out internationally to logged-in users, including Canada, UK, Germany, France, and Spain. In addition, the Neeva search engine itself (not NeevaAI) will be rolled out to Australia and New Zealand.
The timing of today’s announcement is particularly noteworthy, 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 redesigned search experience.
What the ChatGPT?
Most years can be more or less defined by at least one overarching technical trend. In 2022, web3 was one of the big buzzwords in the city, with the metaverse and tangential immersive technologies also competing for mindshare. While there’s nothing to indicate that such trends will disappear 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 eerily 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 institute, ChatGPT has taken the world by storm since its prototype was first introduced in November, with some claiming its launch signals the arrival of AI into the mainstream.
With OpenAI already commercializing the service through a premium subscription, the mighty Google moved in last week to unveil a new “experimental conversational AI service” called Bard that shows how AI can transform search engines by providing synthesized responses to collected from multiple sources to provide more nuanced answers to online questions. And that’s what Microsoft actually launched two days later: an all-new incarnation of Bing, powered by a more advanced version of ChatGPT, tweaked for real-time search.
Instead of displaying the usual list of links, the new AI-infused search engine takes a request, scans for answers, and generates a reply full of quotes to the original sources.
And this is, in fact, what Neeva is now bringing to international markets, one month after its US launch.
The story so far
By way of a quick recap, Neeva, based in Mountain View, California, first launched a subscription-only search engine in its domestic US market in June 2021, later adding a free “basic” tier to the mix with certain restrictions in place. The company brought the search engine to Europe in October and has since rolled it out to other markets around the world.
Neeva’s main selling point is that it doesn’t monetize through ads and prevents third-party trackers from using personal data to serve personalized ads. Neeva wants to make money with old-fashioned paid subscriptions.
An ad-free search environment means users don’t have to scroll through tons of sponsored results to get to the organic links they want. However, Neeva’s basic look-and-feel has been much the same as search engines since before even Google came on the scene – row upon row of links to individual resources, with a few aesthetic deviations thrown into the mix.
But with NeevaAI, the startup wants to do its part to reinvent the search function.
AapkaDost has been dabbling with NeevaAI for the past few weeks, and our testing found it to perform quite impressively, comfortably handling questions like “Why were the Beatles so big??” or “What is the world 5k [running] file?”, with Neeva generating a response in real time from multiple cited sources.
These quotes are key to avoiding the “black box” controversies that engulf many AI technologies. The idea here is that by showing people where it gets its information from, it not only promotes transparency, but also gives those who have published content on the Internet the credit they deserve and increases their chances of getting follow-up referral traffic.
But some questions it’s just not equipped to handle. In those cases, it defaults to the trusted website-specific links and excerpts that users can look at and find the answer for themselves.
In an interview with AapkaDost for this story, Ramaswamy explained some of the rationale that went into developing NeevaAI, including how it decides when and where to generate responses from multiple sources.
“It roughly works for questions that we can find authority websites that answer that question,” explains Ramaswamy.
So, unlike many of the quirky examples we’ve seen so far of ChatGPT being tasked with writing lyrics in the style of the likes of Nick Cave, NeevaAI won’t help you here. Likewise, if you ask it a trick question – whether intentionally or not – it probably won’t answer and revert to the usual list of links for you to research on your own.
“Our goal with NeevaAI was to be – first and foremost – fail-safe, we don’t want to tell you false things,” Ramaswamy continued. “So we opted for security in how we retrieve (information).”
An example here might be someone asking NeevaAI when Boris Johnson was King of the United Kingdom, rather than the more accurate question when he was Prime Minister. It’s the kind of question that could be potentially tricking any search engine, as there will undoubtedly be pages on the internet that contain all the words in the question – so it’s NeevaAI’s job to make sure it understands the question and provides an appropriate answer. Or no answer at all, which it will do with questions it isn’t sure of the answer to.
Clearly, NeevaAI’s response here isn’t perfect. A smarter response – one that would no doubt be given by a human – would be to tell the user that Boris Johnson was not in fact the King, but did serve as Prime Minister. Or at least generate a more satisfying answer that encourages the user to refine the question. And this is something that could come to NeevaAI in a future iteration, but what form this ultimately takes is not clear.
“If you ask it some stupid question, it just won’t say anything, because there’s nothing on the internet to suggest that this is true or false,” Ramaswamy said. “So if there is no answer to be had, we refuse to answer. But we will fix that soon.”
AapkaDost’s talk with Ramaswamy took place before Bing’s big reveal last week, so today’s expansion into global markets feels a little different than before it was revealed that Microsoft was essentially doing the same thing – with billions of extra dollars in its coffers to help . And it is now clear that Google is going to do something similar in the future.
Elsewhere, other nascent search engines are following a similar trajectory to Neeva’s. In December, venture capital-backed You.com launched similar ChatGPT-style AI smarts to Neeva’s.
Clearly, Neeva still has a lot of work to do if it wants to differentiate itself in a market that includes multibillion-dollar established companies and other agile startups, with much the same goals. However, Neeva is hopeful that its ad-free approach will garner enough followers to see it flourish as a search engine more broadly, at a time when the world has become increasingly weary of big tech’s use of big data. The likes of You.com doesn’t serve ads yet, but it has said it may serve “non-privacy-invasive” ads in the future.
Most of all, Neeva is betting on its future by developing its own search stack, rather than relying on the same engine used by Google or Microsoft’s Bing as most of the other challengers do.
However, all this is not to say that Neeva is a completely independent, self-sufficient entity. While it insists on relying entirely on its own search stack, it leans on Bing for now some internet search activity. And specifically for NeevaAI, Ramaswamy confirmed that it works with “major language model companies,” including OpenAI’s GPT-3.5 and Claude of heavily enterprise-backed Anthropic, which was founded by former OpenAI employees.
“For example, we use them to generate training data for us, and sometimes we call them to help with the summaries,” said Ramaswamy. “Most of the models we use for NeevaAI are our own – we pre-train or fine-tune them for custom tasks like answering questions or summaries.”
Founded four years ago, Neeva has raised some $77.5 million in venture capital funding from Silicon Valley VC heavyweights, including Sequoia Capital and Greylock. So while it has to compete against Google and Microsoft, among other well-funded startups, it’s not exactly friendless and self-funding.
Regardless of where Neeva goes from here, it’s clear that 2023 will be an important year for generative AI, as evidenced by Shutterstock’s recently launched toolkit for creating stock photos from text prompts.
Similarly, Neeva has no plans to limit the scope of its AI efforts to simply retrieving information through search engines, and is likely to expand into related industries in the future.
“Vivek [Neeva co-founder Vivek Raghunathan] and I’m like kids in a candy store, we don’t know what to work on now,” Ramaswamy joked. “There’s just so much—simple, natural sequels. Generative AI is one direction, site-specific search is another super interesting direction. Those are things that easily border on what we do.”
NeevaAI is available today in English to logged-in users with both the free and premium plans in the UK and Canada, as well as local language incarnations in Germany, France and Spain.