You.com wants to redo the search engine

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Google search organizes the way billions of people think about facts and data, and for years it’s been organized around a principle nicknamed “one true answer”: the idea that most people are looking for something better answered with a short factual extract. But that’s not the only way people can browse the web, and today a company called You.com is trying something different – a search engine built around sorting and comparing results.

You.com, founded by two former Salesforce employees, opens in public beta today and announces a $ 20 million funding round led by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. The service abandons the linear list of links that you will find in most general search engines, opting for a response grid organized by source. Sources include generic categories such as “web results” and “news”, but also specific sites such as StackOverflow, Wikipedia, Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn and individual news sites like The New York Times.

In addition to this organizational change, the great thing about You.com is that it allows people to influence the sources they see. You can “vote for” and “vote against” for specific categories. So when you search, you’ll see preferred sources first, neutral searches second, and rejected sources last.

When I searched for “Section 230” on the You.com pre-launch beta, for example, by default a general “web results” box would show up first including links to the University Cornell and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But I could also choose to see something like a Wikipedia excerpt or a series of Reddit results first. Categories are also influenced by the context of your search. If I searched for “Moonfall” it would favor an IMDb powered “What to Watch” box for Roland Emmerich’s upcoming film, while searching for “infrastructure bill” would prioritize a general info grid and media coverage from many different outlets.

Some of these searches, like the one in section 230, end up giving results that are quite similar to Google’s. But the interface encourages browsing a range of sources rather than clicking the first link (s). It also includes great tools for specific use cases. Searching for “javascript loop”, for example, will invoke listings of referring pages on Google, but You.com will bring up plain text syntax snippets from sources like W3Schools that you can easily copy and paste.

You.com is not optimized for answering basic questions like Google, especially for queries that require guessing which people to want instead of what they literally type. It’s much more likely to encourage clicks to other pages – if you want “the actor who plays Sherlock Holmes,” You.com will provide links to listings while Google will provide you with a movie star grid. It doesn’t include small features like offering answers in the search bar.

And You.com is generally worse at guiding your eye to the most relevant information. If you’re not used to reading the text in search results carefully, it seems overwhelming and sort of cluttered. I only used a desktop version of the Pre-Launch Beta, which looks like the way it is Assumed to experiment with, but that’s not necessarily where most people want to research on the web.

But the service seems a lot more honest on its own limits than Google. Google’s snippets are arguably the platform’s worst feature, granting a false sense of authority to inaccurate or offensive information or even to summarize a specific answer in a dangerously in the wrong way. (Full disclosure: I could only find this last link through Google, where I got it by searching for “google seizure snippet,” while You.com offered general information about snippets and seizures.) You .com offers a “Quick Facts” box for queries such as “distance from Earth to Moon”, but it comes with a bunch of other results.

You.com comes very close to being an engine for experienced web search users who like to compare multiple sources of information. It still lacks key features like search within a limited date range, something co-founder and CEO Richard Socher says will come later, and it’s not as versatile as Google. (Clicking on the Maps icon in the closed beta actually takes you to Google Maps.) But that’s part of the appeal – Socher reasonably describes You.com as an “unbundled” search for a Google-style web empire. .

Oddly, the company doesn’t pitch this pitch very well in its launch announcement. He describes his system as “summing up the results of the entire web,” which seems almost precisely backwards. Socher says the phrase refers to grouping of You.com results by source, but compared to Google, it hardly presents any explicit editorial summary of the information.

Like DuckDuckGo, Brave Search, and other services trying to reduce Google’s overwhelming dominance in search, You.com emphasizes the idea that it is more private and less followed. It’s ad-unsupported and tied to countless Google-related products, and there’s an incognito mode that You.com says hides your IP address. Among other things, it promises that it will never target personalized ads to users. The service, unfortunately, doesn’t have a business model yet, however, so it’s unclear what kind of other tradeoffs it might have to make in the future.

You.com probably won’t appeal to everyone, but it does offer an interesting and quite unique set of features. It’s one of the few non-topic-specific search engines that avoids feeling like a more principled but virtually inferior version of Google – encouraging one to see the web as a real network of websites, and not only like water for an answer box.



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