Search is Too Important to Get Wrong

Why I’m joining Neeva to make a dent in search stagnation

Ario Jafarzadeh
4 min readJan 12, 2022

While I spent much of 2021 thinking about the metaverse (a subject for another post), it remains the case that core internet utilities like messaging, the browser, social networks, and search still have a lot of room for improvement.

The number of connections, content, and overall choices in a typical day to navigate continues to grow, but these essential tools remain frozen in carbonite, somewhere around 2010.

Your fav 2010-era web product’s feature set

The companies behind these services, (aka “FAANGs”) over the last 20 years, have made an incredible amount of money built on the back of advertising and selling user data. This gold mine of revenue has meant their primary consideration is to ensure they avoid doing anything to disrupt revenue growth coming from these sources. Minor product improvements do trickle out, but nothing paradigm-shifting which would force a rethink on revenue.

Say you find that image results turn out to be better for vacation searches, but you also see that clicks go down on your ads… what’s a FAANG to do?

This core problem has been a thorn in my side for a long while, to the point that I felt compelled to come off the sidelines and put skin in the game. To that end, I’ve joined Neeva, a 2-year-old startup building an ad-free, privacy-centric search engine, as head of design.

Why I’m thrilled to join this endeavor:

  1. Search is the primary entryway to digital information, which leads to knowledge, and in the best case, wisdom. From life-changing dilemmas to the smallest nuisance, search is often how we go about understanding something in order to take action. The problem space is infinite and deserves serious attention and care. The incredible amount of mis and disinformation that continues to proliferate across the web underscores all of this. We need our tools to help us sort facts from fiction and I’m excited to see how I can help here.
  2. Not having to worry about advertisers and selling data means we can focus on making the best damn search product for our users, period. Ironically, I had a similar opportunity during the 5 years I was at Google (2006–2011). I was fortunate enough to work on projects where our only concern was solving user problems with nary a thought about revenue. Ads, back then, enabled this, but over time, they became a self-defeating ouroboros, stifling the bottoms-up innovation that defined the company. I’m incredibly excited to focus exclusively on users again.
  3. Our customers are the users of the product. Contrast that with most popular web services where revenue is coming from someone who isn’t using the product. That may sound trivial, but it has serious implications for the design, namely avoiding competing goals between user and customer (i.e. a parent wanting to minimize screentime and a kid wanting to maximize it).
  4. One of the smartest people I know said my new boss is the smartest person he knows. I’m excited to learn from him and some of the best software engineers in our industry. If any of this sounds interesting, I highly recommend listening to one of the podcasts Sridhar has recently been on.
  5. A criticism leveled at endeavors like Neeva (or people who appeared in the Social Dilemma documentary) goes something like “these guys ruined everything and now expect to use this as a way to absolve past sins.” While there may be an element of atonement here, I honestly believe the best people to challenge Big Tech monopolies are those who built them. We know how these businesses work in detail and can use those insights to build something much better.
  6. We’re thinking about search as much more than a results page. Heck, we don’t even need to bring you to a results page! We recently released FastTap which provides direct links as you type, right under the search bar. In addition to core search, the Spaces feature has the potential to be one’s own personal Wikipedia, cataloging and organizing the best of what you find on the web. I’m personally going to experiment with mine over 2022 and see if it can become a replacement for my other social media surfaces.
  7. Many of us at Neeva have a keen eye towards the large umbrella that’s going by the name “Web3.” While Neeva isn’t going to mint your NFT, we are excited to see how we can be part of what seems to be a new wave of services that will come to define the next 10 years of the web.
  8. In addition to making a great product, my other personal BHAG in this role is to see how we might create the most designer-friendly company in tech. One that supports designers’ interests, fosters their creativity, allows room for personal growth, and attracts a diverse set of talent along all axes.
Typical ads business model impact on user experience

It’s still early days in Neeva’s journey (we just turned on our free membership plan today, along with a premium offering). We are a small team of motivated designers, engineers, and other product specialists trying to make a dent in tech’s ecosystem and prove there’s a better way to build an internet business, one that’s back to basics (paying for a product, how novel!), but also forward-thinking about user experience. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more and join us.