Google Search organizes the way billions of people think about facts and data, and for years it has been organized around a principle called “one true answer”: the idea that most people are looking for something that can best be answered with a concise snippet. But that’s not the only way people can navigate the web, and today a company called You.com is trying something different: a search engine built around sorting and comparing results.
You.com, founded by two former Salesforce employees, opens today in public beta and announces a $ 20 million round of funding led by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. The service leaves the linear list of links found in most general search engines, and selects a grid with answers organized by source. Sources include generic categories such as “web results”[ads1]; and “news”, but also specific sites such as StackOverflow, Wikipedia, Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn and individual news sites such as New York Times.
On top of this organizational change, You.com’s major differentiating feature is that it allows people to influence which sources they see. You can “vote up” and “vote down” specific categories, so when you run searches, you will see preferred sources first, neutral searches then, and downvoted sources last.
When I searched for “Section 230” on You.com’s pre-launch beta, for example, by default it showed a box with general “web results” first, including links to Cornell University and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But I can also choose to watch something like a Wikipedia snippet or a series of Reddit results first. The categories are also affected by the context of your search. If I searched for “Moonfall” it would favor an IMDb-powered “What to Watch” box for the upcoming Roland Emmerich movie, while searching for “infrastructure bill” prioritizes a general news network and media coverage from many different outlets.
You.com is not optimized to answer basic questions as Google is, especially for questions that require guessing what people wishes instead of what they literally write. It’s much more willing to encourage you to click on to other pages – if you want “the actor who plays Sherlock Holmes”, You.com will provide links to lists while Google gives you a grid of movie stars. It does not include small features like providing answers in the search box.
And You.com is generally worse at keeping an eye on the most relevant information. If you are not used to carefully reading the text in the search results, it looks overwhelming and a bit messy. I only used a desktop version of the preload beta, which feels like it is assumed to be experienced, but is not necessarily where most people want to search online.
But the service seems far more honest about its own limitations than Google. Google’s text snippets are without a doubt the platform’s worst feature, giving a false sense of authority to inaccurate or offensive information or even summarizing an accurate answer in a dangerously wrong way. (Full disclosure: I could only find the last link via Google, where I got it by searching for “google seizure code snippet”, while You.com offered general information about snippets and seizures.) You.com offers a “quick facts” box for questions like “distance from earth to moon”, but it comes with a number of other results.
You.com is temptingly close to being an engine for search engine users who like to compare multiple sources of information. It still lacks key features like searching within a limited date range, something co-founder and CEO Richard Socher says will come later, and it’s not as versatile as Google. (If you click on the closed beta Maps icon, you’re actually only redirecting to Google Maps.) But that’s part of the appeal – Socher reasonably describes You.com as “separating” searches from a Google-style web empire.
Oddly enough, the company does not do this pitch very well in the launch announcement. It describes the system as “summarizing results from across the web”, which feels almost exactly backwards. Socher says the phrase refers to You.com’s grouping of results by source, but compared to Google, it has virtually no explicit editorial summary of information.
Like DuckDuckGo, Brave Search and other services that try to undo Google’s overwhelming search dominance, You.com emphasizes the idea that it’s more private and less tracked. It is not supported by ads and is linked to countless related products such as Google, and it is an incognito mode that You.com says hides your IP address. Among other things, it promises that it will never target personalized ads to users. Unfortunately, the service does not have a business model at all yet, so it is not clear what other considerations it may have in the future.
You.com probably will not appeal to everyone, but it does offer an interesting and quite unique set of features. It’s one of those rare non-topic search engines that avoids feeling like a more principled but practically inferior version of Google – encouraging you to think of the web as an actual network of sites, not just gravel for a reply box.