Google's former advertising chief is making an ad-free search engine

In context: Sridhar Ramaswamy became Google’s senior vice president for advertising and commerce in 2013. He led the $115 billion branch that was responsible for the ads that popped up on Search, YouTube, and websites with AdSense, for five years. But, fed up with Google’s profiteering and the conflict of interest that had arisen between customers and advertisers, he left the company to build his own search engine.

The breaking point for Ramaswamy came in 2017. The London Times published an exposé on seemingly innocuous children’s videos on YouTube that had hundreds, if not thousands, of paedophilic comments. Google rushed to quell the abuse of their platform. But the astute queried how the system had enabled such a disaster.

“This is an impossible conflict and we kind of muddled our way through it,” Ramaswamy said.

YouTube works on a simple principle of profit. Videos that receive views and likes and comments are deemed successful and promoted. Advertisements run in front of them. Google’s income is generated automatically. It’s safety and security that comes later – countermeasures, like blocking the comments on a video, are added when an issue is noticed (usually by journalists).

Ramaswamy argues that this is the predictable result of prioritizing profit over users. If Google makes money from advertising to you, are you the user or the product?

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Google's former advertising chief is making an ad-free search engine 1

Ramaswamy, together with another former Googler, Vivek Raghunathan, have started a company called Neeva. They’re creating a search engine that doesn’t advertise to its users at all. They’re not reinventing the wheel, though; search results are provided by Bing and it uses Apple Maps for directions. It’s a cosmetic and philosophical upgrade. The challenge they face is that their cosmetic and philosophical upgrade has an (unspecified) subscription fee.

Ramaswamy begins his blog post describing the Neeva search engine with this principle: “finding information that is important to us—weather, jobs, sports, that strange headache symptom—is a basic and deeply personal human need.” But if the product is rooted in democratic user-centric ideology, how then can it claim to only fulfill that need for paying customers? Is Neeva trading one philosophical fault for another?

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