New Search Engine Cuil Tries to Take on Google

Microsoft and Yahoo aren't the only companies looking to compete with Google in the search business. In fact, this morning a new startup called Cuil opened its virtual doors for the world to start using its search engine. So, on this morning we ask, how is Cuil different from all other search engines? The site claims:

"Cuil (pronounced COOL) is a search engine that combines the largest Web index with content-based relevance methods, organized results, and complete user privacy. The company's next generation approach to search is the result of proprietary breakthroughs in search architecture and ranking algorithms."

Ciul claims to have an index of 120 billion pages, which it states is "three times more than any other search engine." We have no reason to doubt this claim, but in our limited hands-on with Cuil this morning, Cuil often either turned up fewer results than Google or no results at all. (For instance, separate searches for the words "cpu," "hamlet," and "quagmire" turned up no results.) As the site is new, the empty results could be a function of first-day bugs or user overload. (Although, curiously, while searching for "French" turned up no results, "French bread" produced 250 results. Searching for "French bread" on Google produced 1,520,000 results.)

Unlike Google's PageRank approach to ranking pages by perceived importance (or "popularity" as Cuil calls it), Cuil claims to rank "results by the content on each page," while examining the context of the search term on the pages:

"Cuil searches the Web for pages with your keywords and then we analyze the rest of the text on those pages. This tells us that the same word has several different meanings in different contexts. Are you looking for jaguar the cat, the car or the operating system?"

For instance, when we searched for "French bread," the results page included tabs with more context-specific examples of our search, such as "French Bread Recipe" and "Sourdough French Bread." Also, an "Explore by Category" panel was on the results page with subject-related topics such as "New Orleans Cuisine" and "American Sandwiches."

 Click on the image above to see the full-sized image.
The other big claim of Cuil is user privacy. Here is what Cuil says on its Privacy page:

"Privacy is a hot topic these days, and we want you to feel totally comfortable using our service, so our privacy policy is very simple: when you search with Cuil, we do not collect any personally identifiable information, period. We have no idea who sends queries: not by name, not by IP address, and not by cookies... Your search history is your business, not ours."

If Cuil's data-mining algorithms turn out to be superior to Google's, users would no doubt flock to anything that shows better performance for any kind of search. But infrastructure means a lot in any business, and Google has a lot of people invested in using it for all sorts of things, from e-mail to checking the weather, so Cuil has an uphill climb even if it is a better search engine.

Cuil was founded by husband and wife Tom Costello and Anna Patterson:

"Mr. Costello researched and developed search engines at Stanford University and IBM; Ms. Patterson is best known for her work at Google, where she was the architect of the company’s large search index and led a Web page ranking team."

Costello is from Ireland and claims to have based the name of the site on the Gaelic word Cuil, for which one if its meanings is "knowledge." Costello and Patterson certainly have a strong search pedigree, and as such might very well have the necessary knowledge to successfully take on Google.

--Additional reporting by Gregory Sullivan