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Can search be saved from ad cannibalization? Google’s former ad chief certainly thinks so.

Can search be saved from ad cannibalization? Google’s former ad chief certainly thinks so.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Getty / The Current

Sridhar Ramaswamy, who previously served as Google’s top ad chief, knows a thing or two about search. He played a key role in transitioning Google’s Search business from desktop to mobile — where today it has 95 percent market share — by spearheading efforts to bolster Search Ads performance on smaller screens. Ramaswamy also grew Google’s ad business from $51 billion in 2013 to nearly $100 billion five years later, just before his departure.

In an interview with The Current, Ramaswamy shared his insight on the current state of search and why he believes consumers are willing to pay $5 each month for Neeva — his newly launched, ad-free subscription search engine.

Competition in the search engine arena is fierce, even for someone as knowledgeable about the space as Ramaswamy. But it’s worth noting that Neeva has attracted top shelf talent, including Darin Fisher, who previously ran Google Chrome; Udi Manber, formerly head of Google Search ads; and Steven Sure, a longtime Amazon exec who played an integral role in growing the company’s Prime subscription service. "Our search engine is not about advertisers and it’s not about various people trying to get your attention,” says Ramaswamy. “It’s about delivering the best results for the user."

The current state of Search

Search has become less about delivering credible, relevant results, Ramaswamy says, and more about generating ad revenue. The search results people see are also heavily tied to search engine optimization, or SEO, which can often lead to weak information and a poor user experience on a website bloated with ads. “These sites are often ad supported and they’ve figured out how to extend your session on their site through SEO,” he says. “They are behaving as the [Google] algorithm dictates. And sites that are heavily SEO optimized are less about you and more about generating ad revenue.”

Ramaswamy points to WebMD as one example. “Regardless of what symptoms I have, once I get to a WebMD page, I have to conclude that I either have cancer or that I will soon die,” he says. “Content such as this is what drives clicks to their site, which doesn’t help the consumer.”

Ramaswamy says search results show more ads on smaller screens today versus several years ago. They’re also easy to miss, as the “Ad” label — which was previously green — is now black. Search results today also go beyond simple text-based ads and now include images of products to promote Google’s growing e-commerce business, which in turn gobbles up precious real estate on tiny mobile screens.

Ramaswamy says Neeva aims to combat these issues. Results that are loaded with ads, for instance, are flagged on the search results page. Questionable news sites or blogs are also flagged.

The company also plans to eventually take its users to relevant pages without them seeing a search results page — something Ramaswamy says Google would never implement as it would mean fewer ads to show consumers.

Is this story trustworthy?

Neeva itself recently came out of stealth mode. Today, it has roughly 40,000 users, each of which averages about a dozen search queries a day, Ramaswamy tells The Current. It also announced a partnership with NewsGuard during the Web Summit last week. The partnership with NewsGuard will integrate trustworthy labels — which are determined by actual journalists and not AI algorithms – that state whether any given website is credible.

According to Ramaswamy, Google wouldn’t implement such a feature, despite increasing criticism from lawmakers that it’s partly responsible for helping spread misinformation. “They do not want to be in the business of figuring out which websites are credible,” says Ramaswamy. “They have a fear that if they do, they will somehow be held accountable for doing just that across all websites. But we are a smaller company, and we are not ad supported. That means we can take more risks.” 

And while other search engines are all trying to compete with Google, Ramaswamy says he isn’t trying to make Neeva a direct rival to Google. He believes search will eventually evolve to the point where consumers use several different search engines to serve their needs, or in similar fashion as to how people use Amazon to search prices and reviews; Yelp to find restaurants; and Pinterest to search for new ideas or inspiration.

“With Neeva, our users may be drawn to the personalization, or the fact that they won’t be hounded with ads on social media for products they searched for,” he says. “We just need our users to fall in love with one of our features.”

“If we can capture just a few percentage points of market share in the U.S. and Western Europe, it will make us an influential company,” Ramaswamy adds.

Search advertising is massive, as it captured 42 percent of all U.S. digital ad spend last year, or $59 billion, an 8 percent increase year-over-year, according to the latest figures from the Interactive Advertising Bureau.