Cuil: Terminally uncool

* Lessons for all companies that want to compete in Web applications of any kind

Building Web applications that are robust and perform well is hard, but trying to promote them, build a market for them, and then make money from them is far harder. And harder still is when you're launching a Web service that competes with an established brand in the same market.

Could anything be harder than that? Well, yes, that’s what launching a Web service that competes with Google is and exactly what Cuil attempted when they went live on July 28.

Cuil (pronounced “cool”) was created by ex-Google and ex-IBM employees with a $33 million venture capital investment. It’s goal was to out-Google Google with an index that the company implied made it the biggest available (they claimed 120 billion pages, but as Google no longer publishes the size of its index it is hard to verify the claim).

As many commentators have pointed out this is a curious thing for Cuil to focus on as what matters, as we will revisit in a moment, is not the number of results but their relevancy – we want to spend less time looking for stuff and returning more results doesn’t help.

Another key marketing differentiator was that Cuil stated it does not retain any personally identifiable information at all, an issue that Google has been criticized for. If they loose a point on the size issue they certainly gain one on privacy. We’ll score them a total of zero so far.

Cuil’s user interface is on the minimal side, offering only a simple and elegant search form on a black background. Entering a search term such as “web applications restful api” and clicking on submit, renders (at the time of writing) 1,196 results on a page that is good looking and polished. Compare this to Google’s claim of “about 317,000” for the same search.

Now except for the results of very narrow search terms the total number of results is meaningless as a measure of a search engine’s ability. Even so, Cuil hasn’t, as far as I can determine, addressed the issue of the number of results in any written form. This would appear to be a minor but important oversight by Cuil’s marketing – when you are claiming that size matters you’d better defend anything that appears to be smaller than expected. I’ll give them a minus one for that.

On the plus side the Cuil user interface is nice looking and has a polished feel, but however good it looks that has no bearing on whether people find the service valuable, but I’ll give Cuil one point for trying. Their total score is still zero.

So what of the quality of Cuil’s results? I’d say they are dismal. The search I used above returns Wikipedia’s entry on REST followed by three results for the Google Search API, the NING developer network, and so on … essentially all technical resources. Compare that to Cuil’s results: An XML article that mention REST and a Java Developer article on RESTful Web services from Sun followed six book-related sites discussing RESTful Web services. The relevancy of Cuil’s results have been, in my experience, generally disappointing. Score -1 million because that’s what search is all about – get it wrong and you aren’t going to be a player.

Maybe Cuil can improve the relevancy of its results, but given that the time for it to show just how good it is was at their much ballyhooed launch its have lost the opportunity and probably for good.

Indeed, according to Hitwise, since Cuil’s much hyped launch the site traffic had plummeted from 0.06% of Web visits to 0.0075% by Aug. 5:

“As of this Tuesday, Aug. 5, ranked as the #1034 most visited Web site amongst all Web sites, and in the #34 position in our search engines category. We are also getting basic demographic data and lifestyle (Mosaic) segmentation on visitors to this new engine. The site is skewing male (64.4%) and here's an interesting tidbit, the largest age segment of visitors is 55+ (36.3%). This is probably due to the influx of traffic from news sites covering the search engine's launch.”

The bottom line is that Cuil has been a big disappointment and has lost whatever opportunity they may have had to get “traction” in the search market. And unless Cuil has something really cool up its sleeve then along with that lost opportunity will be the loss of the $33 million venture capital investment.

I think that in this tale are tremendous lessons for all companies that want to compete in Web applications of any kind not just the search engine world:

1. Know what service attributes you are selling and make sure they are meaningful and valuable to the market. If you’re selling size then make sure you are consistent in your marketing messages and can defend or explain anything that contradicts your pitch.

2. You have to deliver what you promise. Cuil promised a better search but didn’t deliver.

3. Users interfaces help to sell and if the underlying service is up to scratch then a good user interface can seal the deal. But if the service isn’t what it is supposed to be, no amount of polish or chrome can save you – you are doomed.

4. If you fire up the hype machine and you have no ‘there’ there then your opportunity will rush towards the horizon with it’s backside on fire.

R.I.P. Cuil.

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