From Cuil to ice-cold: how not to overthrow Google

John Gushue
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It takes some brains and power - and gonads, for that matter - to take Google on at what it does best. When upstart search engine Cuil launched this week, its backers wanted to prove it had the whole package.
They certainly emphasized some key points: it was started, we were told, by former Google managers, including one of the key architects of Google's search technology. That spoke to its credibility.
Cuil also boasted of some impressive numbers, by claiming that it indexed 120 billion pages, several times more than Google itself.
That would make it a site to watch, right?
Well, not necessarily. Cuil's launch this week was anything but.

Like others, I'm sure, I was intrigued by Cuil's visual presentation. Instead of the famous minimalist white-based design that Google offers as a start page, Cuil goes downtown with a black scheme. Fair enough. What happens when you start looking?
Well, that's where things get … interesting, to be charitable. I typed some basic terms, got some basic results, but I also noticed some odd things: websites that had no apparent connection to the search term. I looked up some upcoming films, for instance, and got sites for home renovation and real estate among them.
I thought it was just me. The early reaction across the web was dismal. Searchers were confounded by the results they got, and sometimes hugely annoyed. Tech sites were all but laughing at Cuil, and message boards were overwhelmingly negative.
Tough room, as a comedian would say.
Well, and those nasty comments came from those who could get on. On Monday, the official launch day, the whole thing crashed for a time.
On the upside, that meant so many people were curious about the new kid in town, they stopped by for a look. On the downside … well, that part is bloody obvious. If you can't deliver the goods in the multi-billion-dollar search business, you may as well stay home.
It reminds me of seeing a small kid trying to act tough in the playground, only to be plopped on his bottom. In this case, no one had to play bully, because Cuil itself has shown how poorly resourced it is.
One weird bit is about the numbers game. Even if Cuil is indexing more than 120 billion pages, how important is that, really? That kind of volume may not be that relevant, especially since Google hasn't released its own count for a few years now. What Google has emphasized is what it doesn't index: the chaff it figures will clog search results, including phony spam-like sites that have no content, but still try to catch your eyeballs.
Those kinds of sites do come back on Cuil. A friend Googled herself, and was astonished to see her name attached to a site filled only with links for specious advertising.
Cuil is at the bottom of a very long, very steep hill. Given that "Google" has become a verb - I almost wrote "I Googled some terms" several paragraphs up - it's clear that millions of people are happy enough with the way things are.
That doesn't mean that Cuil could offer an alternative. Its presentation is certainly a change. The results are presented with a wider view, even though the overall look is a bit messy.
I like that pictures come attached to previews, which helps skimmers like me move along quickly. But the soul of search is the results menu, and I found Cuil sorely lacking, especially in one-on-one comparisons with Google.
For instance, I typed "Manhattan walking tours" into both, to help with a trip that's still way down the road. With Cuil, I got a nice array, but some of the featured selections were from pages created years ago. With Google, I got a map off the bat (it helps Google to own such an application, among many, many others) and the quality of the results was superior.
Cuil, in theory, should have an advantage to compete with Google (or Ask, or Yahoo!, or anyone else). It's designed to focus on content, whereas Google's secretive methodology emphasizes popularity. The idea is that if thousands of sites link somewhere, you'll probably want to do so, too.
Over the last hour, I've been trying one search term after another: bands I'm interested in, people I know, places I'm planning to visit - anything, really, that comes to mind.
The nub? I got some good results, but Google outpaced Cuil almost every time. Plus, I've become accustomed to toggling from Google's main results page to its news, images and blog tabs.
Cuil … well, Cuil doesn't have any of those.
But I'm not going to turn my back on Cuil. Even though I rely on Google like a crutch, I know the value of mixing and matching with search requests - especially for proverbial needles in haystacks.
I'm not sure, though, how forgiving the broader web population is going to be, especially after a launch week that the company would no doubt like to forget.

John Gushue is a news writer for in St. John's. E-mail: Read past Surf's Up columns and daily updates at his blog:

Organizations: Google, Yahoo!

Geographic location: Cuil, Manhattan, St. John's

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