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Cuil Looks to Challenge for Search

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After a significant amount of fanfare and hype, the search engine Cuil.com launched on Monday.  Unfortunately for Cuil, it had a bit of a rough day. Among other problems, their servers crashed and even when results did come back, users were less than impressed with the quality of results.  The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine both slammed the service the following day.

All this sounds very familiar to me. When we launched Spock last year, our servers also crashed and we got dinged in the press.  However less than a year later, our user base is rapidly growing as we close in on 5 million visits per month.  Not bad for a search engine less than a year old.  As a person invested in the latest developments in search, I wrote a few key observations from the Cuil launch that should be noted by entrepreneurs, the press, and especially consumers.

Lesson for Cuil or any other start-up:  Launch early, but skip the heavy PR.  There was no need for Cuil to go heavy on the PR at launch. Why not do a soft launch and slap the word “beta” all over the place. Iterate on the product as you get feedback from users and only make a PR push to the masses once you are certain your product will stand up to expectations and traffic loads.  One thing that Google did really well in the early days (probably not by choice, since they did not have $33 million at launch like Cuil) was let their traffic build up organically.  Only after Larry Page and Sergey Brin knew they had the best product and could handle a world of traffic, did they make more of an effort to get PR around the company and brand.

Lesson for the Press: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.  It’s pretty surprising that the press is already writing off Cuil after one day.  They should know that the end game is what is important, not the start.  Cuil could very well over the next few years develop a better ranking technology and start giving users that “wow” experience people gravitate towards. The press should know better than to write-off a technology after one day, especially if there are smart entrepreneurs going after a big market.

Lesson for Consumers: Sure, Cuil disappointed you on day one.  But how many times has Microsoft done that with version one of a product or even Facebook after they came out with News Feed. It happens to everyone, no matter how well prepared, every company or product will experience some misteps when they launch- especially technology products.  I’d give Cuil a chance.  See how their technology and search develops in the next six months, you might be surprised.  At Spock, after our launch, we were lucky enough to have about 5,000 fans of Spock give me advice and input on how to improve the experience.  Their feedback, feature testing, and support was essential for us during that period.  While we haven’t perfected people search yet, we now feel that we have a much better idea about what our users want and need.

Here are some things I think Cuil could do in the next year to win share in the search market.

  1. Develop a business model – They might have a great technology, but if you don’t have any users, what good is it?  After a bad day of PR, it will be diffiuclt for them to get certain users back to the site.  Having a solid business model will allow them to get distribution deals done with other networks and search engines.  Eventually, this will result in a solid user base that’s greater than any amount of good PR.  This was how Google got into Yahoo in the early days and how it helped it capture more and more market share.  Plus, search engine technology is expensive.  It’s takes a lot of money to launch a search engine and even more to keep it running. The faster you get a sustainable business model in place, the better your chances of success in the long run.
  2. Don’t forget your core – Cuil is a search engine and I think as long as they stick to search and building great technology, they will have a good outcome. Too many times, entrepreneurs (especially first time ones) get engrossed in a new fad and change their business model or mission overnight to keep up with the trends.  I saw this firsthand when dozens of companies became “facebook application” companies only to return to their original concepts a few months later.
  3. User Experience First – If you don’t make your users happy, nothing else matters. I went to Cuil and typed “spock.com” and much to my dismay, we were not the first set of results.  I’ll eventually check back to see if they’ve fixed the problem, and if they do, great.  If not, I’m far less inclinded to recommend or even use their product again.  At the end of the day, Cuil has to first and foremost give users what they want and give it to them at a greater value then Google. Cuil, certainly has a tough challenge ahead, but VCs gave them $33 million to do just that.

Published in Startup Life