TORONTO — Around 16 years into Sridhar Ramaswamy’s career at Google, he realized he was having difficulty reconciling the actions of advertisers with the needs of consumers, and their differences were often creating a negative online experience.
It was a turning point for the senior vice-president of ads and commerce, who later left to co-found Neeva, a search engine that is making its Canadian debut Tuesday and is set on bucking the ad-hungry nature of its peers.
“Over the past 20, 25 years we have sort of fallen in love with a suite of free services … and what has happened is that slowly but surely these services have turned against us. They've become more and more exploitative,” Ramaswamy said.
“We pay for it with our attention. We pay for it with our dollars. The hundreds of billions of dollars in advertising revenue that companies like Google and Facebook and Amazon make, they're actually coming from you and me. There was never a free lunch.”
While these major tech companies earn the bulk of their profits from serving users ads and compiling data, Neeva intends to be different. It bills itself as “privacy-first” and “ads-free.”
That means it doesn’t remember your search history and is designed to keep trackers from keeping tabs on you.
“What you do with the search engine or even the browser should be between you and the party that you're interacting with,” said Ramaswamy.
“You rest easy knowing that this data is not going to be used to monetize you either by showing ads or affiliate links.”
Without ads to generate revenue, Neeva relies on a paid tier that charges users for a trio of services Ramaswamy thinks everyone needs “to be private, safe and sane on the internet”: a virtual private network to mask your location and online activities, a password manager and an ad blocker.
Canadian users who opt in to the tier will pay $7.99 a month or $64.99 a year.
Both paying and free users will notice that when searching for a product using Neeva, they will be more likely to see reviews for the product appear rather than just the first place to buy it. If they look for health care information, credible and authoritative resources like government websites or the Mayo Clinic will pop up instead of “a whole set of people that figured out how to be on top of Google's results," said Ramaswamy.
The company has also committed to sharing 20 per cent of its topline revenue with content creators such as news sites and publications “because we felt that it was important to have a model where we supported publishers, especially when we use their content," he said.
News seekers will find they can customize which publishers they want to appear most prominently.
Whether tech companies should share revenues with publishers has been a hot topic in Canada as federal Bill C-18 — the Online News Act — winds its way through Parliament. The bill completed its second reading in the House of Commons in May, before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage finished considering it last week. It will soon head to the Senate for three readings and approval.
The bill aims to make tech giants such as Google and Facebook parent company Meta pay for sharing journalism produced by Canadian news organizations. The goal is to level the playing field between news agencies and social media companies, which have eaten up ad revenues while publishers have struggled to remain profitable.
But the tech giants have vehemently fought the bill. Google argued it would give regulators “unprecedented influence over news” and complained the bill doesn't require the news outlets receiving payments to follow basic journalistic standards, “creating a regime that allows bad actors and those peddling misinformation to thrive and profit.”
The opposition doesn’t surprise Ramaswamy. “There's no happy answer to how do you divide existing money or existing revenue that someone has taken for granted?” he said.
“Giving up something is not really something that comes easy to any company and you will see them fight furiously.”
Facebook has already threatened to block news in Canada if it doesn’t get its way with the bill. The company made that move after similar legislation passed in Australia last year, but a few days later it restored news content on the site when the government tweaked its legislation.
So what does Ramaswamy think will happen in Canada?
“This sort of redistribution of wealth by the government rarely goes well,” he said.
“The likely outcome is that ... Google and Facebook and others will cut some sort of backroom deal to give a small amount of money and that's the end.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 13, 2022.
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press