6824175422_003a2ca642_zAt first glance, the market for search seems unassailable. Google controls 80% of searches in the United States and has an even higher market share in other parts of the world. Microsoft’s Bing search engine has been around since 2009, is arguably superior to Google, at least for some kinds of searches, and Microsoft has spent millions on marketing blitzes. And yet they've still barely chipped away at Google.

Given that reality — given the fact that even Microsoft, with all its engineers and all of its billions, cannot unseat Google — who in their right mind would try to build a search engine?

Well, people keep trying. DuckDuckGo, a company in Pennsylvania, raised $6 million in venture funding last year and has had some success, though its 1 million monthly unique visitors represent a drop in the bucket compared to Google (900 million) and Bing (165 million).

But now two dudes in Berlin are having a go at search, with a product called Blippex. And, oddly enough, Blippex may have a better shot at success than the other search engines, if only because its founders are taking a radically different approach to how search works.

The Wikipedia of Search

“This is the first interesting search engine since Google,” writes Christopher Mims in the Atlantic’s Quartz blog.

The two founders of Blippex, Max Kossatz and Gerald Baeck, have built a search engine that ranks pages based on how many times people visit them, and, more importantly, based on how much time people spend on those pages. They call their algorithm DwellRank, and they believe that in theory it could provide better results than Google.

Google uses an algorithm called PageRank, named after co-founder Larry Page. PageRank measures the value or relevance of a website or web page based on the number of other sites that link to it, among other things.

The Blippex Selling Point: Privacy

The real differentiation point is privacy. Blippex gathers more information about user behavior than Google does, but it gathers that information in a way that makes it untraceable to any particular person.

Google can’t do that because its business model is based on delivering personalized, targeted advertising.

Blippex is only a few months old, and it’s still a long way from becoming a serious rival to Google. Plus, to use Blippex, you have to install a browser plugin which starts keeping track of how long you spend on every site you visit. That's perhaps a barrier to the search startup scaling.

So far Blippex has managed to gather usage data about 2 million web pages. Sounds good, until you realize Google has indexed tens of billions of pages and trillions of links.

And there’s the rub. Blippex can only go from good idea to viable search engine by attracting a huge audience. But why would anyone sign up when there’s not much you can do with Blippex? It’s the age-old chicken-and-egg problem, but one that Kossatz believes can be overcome.

Just as in the early days of Wikipedia people didn’t see the point of contributing articles to the site, over time people did start to contribute and “gradually it got better,” Kossatz tells Quartz.

Kossatz and Baeck plan to make Blippex even more anonymous by adopting a peer-to-peer structure in which Blippex plugins will communicate directly to each other rather than sending info through Blippex’s core servers. That way, the searches taking place via Blippex would be completely untraceable. Blippex itself would not know what people were searching for with its technology.

Going Mainstream? 

So far Blippex exists as a kind of plaything for techies. But would regular folks ever use it? That depends on whether privacy itself becomes something that mainstream users care about.

Thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, we now know that tech companies like Google and Facebook share a lot of information with the government.

But that news came and went, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt business at those companies, however.

The real target for Blippex are the kind of tech-savvy people who use things like Tor and Bitcoin and who previously used Lavabit before that secure email service was shut down.

What really might happen is that a new internet might spring up in parallel with the mainstream internet. The new one could offer true privacy and anonymity, a place where you could carry on transactions without fear of government snooping. It will be harder to use, but for some, it might be worth the trouble.

Photo by Frederic Bisson, via Creative Commons.

Originally published Oct 9, 2013 8:00:00 AM, updated January 18 2023