Cuil shows us how not to launch a search engine

New Google challenger is plagued by its own unique architecture of specialized indexing computers, which is struggling amid unexpectedly high launch-day traffic.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
2 min read

Google challenger Cuil launched last night in blaze of glory. And it went down in a ball of flames. Immediately after launch, the criticism started to pile on: results were incomplete, weird, and missing.

I talked with Cuil VP of communications Vince Sollitto this morning about the launch issues. CEO Tom Costello was "busy putting out fires," Sollitto said.

Sollitto said there were two issues affecting Cuil search quality currently. First, he said, "We are trying to give people different results." Cuil is pitched as an alternative to traditional search engines, and users should not expect the results to be the same.

Fair enough, I said, but there's a difference between alternative and wrong. Which brings us to issue two: "We've only been live for twelve hours," Sollitto said, and traffic has spiked beyond their expectations. In other Web 2.0 launches, a traffic spike would slow down or crash the service, but in Cuil's architecture, the spike affected results, not speed. (Cuil did also crash briefly last night.)

This is because Cuil isn't set up as a massively parallel search network the way, say, Google is. Tom Costello had explained this to me a bit when we talked last week. Each of Cuil's search appliances is specialized to a particular subcategory of results. There are machines that understand and index sports; others are experts on medicine, etc. As these search machines get overloaded, Sollitto said, they drop offline for some queries, and the machines left online return less-than-relevant results that then appear at the top of users' pages.

Which brings us to Sollitto's parting words. Cuil, he says, "will only improve with time," he said. "It's day one. Traffic is massive. We're new. There are bugs to fix, results to improve."

I asked him if he thought it was a mistake to launch the service in such a straightforward way, without even a "beta" moniker on it. "The beta label doesn't inoculate you from scrutiny or criticism," he said. "The product was strong enough to launch."

We'll check back on Cuil after the traffic spike subsides, and we do hope the results improve. At the moment, Cuil's design and interface shows a lot of promise, but results matter, and it's simply a poor search experience.

Here are some poor Cuil results sent in by Webware readers:

This should not be too hard for a search engine.

Not useful.

Probably a symptom of an overloaded system.

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