For better or worse, You.com isn’t like any other search engine you’ve used before.
Instead of arranging results in a vertical list, you.com presents users with rows of horizontal panels—the company calls them “apps”—grouped by source. There’s an app for Yelp, an app for Reddit, an app for Twitter, and an app for standard Bing results, among others. Users can then promote or demote these panels as they browse the results, creating a search engine that’s personalized around their favorite sources.
“This is something no one else has done yet,” says Richard Socher, You.com’s founder and CEO, who was formerly the chief scientist at Salesforce. “It’s kind of a new way of thinking about search.”
But while You.com is both novel and ambitious, it’s also difficult to get used to, and having to sift through a dozen or more content silos can feel counterproductive when not all of them are relevant to what you need. To truly upend the search engine business, You.com will need to do a better job cataloging the entirely new system it’s created.
Disruption with a side of privacy
You.com is part of a broader boom for privacy-centric Google search alternatives, including DuckDuckGo, Startpage, and Brave Search, and it’s just as eager to present its privacy bona fides. It doesn’t mine users’ search histories for targeted ads and makes no attempt to track users after they’ve left the site. Users can also toggle an “Incognito” mode, which turns off personalized results but prevents You.com from storing search histories or IP addresses.
At present, that leaves You.com without a way of making money. Socher says the company is currently focused on growth (fueled by $20 million in funding led by Marc Benioff with participation from Breyer Capital, Sound Ventures, Day One Ventures, and others). But he believes You.com will have plenty of business models to explore without turning personal data into targeted ads.
Most of You.com’s competitors try to hew close to the Google experience. Their differentiation is not so much in the core search product as it is in the broader suite of tools they offer, such as Brave’s web browser or DuckDuckGo’s email privacy options.
By contrast, You.com wants to rethink search results on a more fundamental level. Socher says the company realized that the way people use the web is increasingly concentrated around a smaller number of larger sites, and that users might want to dig more into those individual sources as they search. You.com’s horizontal panels are supposed to make that easier.
“Sometimes you might have a ton of useful content from one type of source, but in a vertical list, it’s very hard for you to be able to zoom into more of that source without sacrificing everything else,” Socher says.
At launch, You.com offers roughly 100 of these sources, or “apps”—some that it creates by crawling the web, others by tapping into companies’ APIs—and it plans to add more over time. It then uses an algorithm to decide which sources to show and how to arrange them for any given query.
Therein lies the other major difference from other search engines: From the results page, users can shift individual panels up or down, which affects how they’ll be ranked in similar searches. A settings menu also lets users give a thumbs up or thumbs down to each source, affecting their prominence across all searches.
“It’s AI that people are in control of, rather than AI making all the final decisions,” Socher says.
In the long term, he envisions a system in which developers create their own You.com apps and submit them for approval, allowing a city bus service to display its schedules, or a blog to feature its stories, for example.
“The future, the way I see it, is that companies will want to have a web app, an iPhone app, an Android app, and a You.com app,” Socher says.
Even so, the concept of building search-specific apps is entirely new, and You.com isn’t yet asking companies to participate. For major publications such as the New York Times and NPR, You.com has created its own apps on their behalf. When asked about setting up a broader app store, Socher says it’s too early to discuss in depth.
Sorting through sources
You.com’s system has its moments. If you’re trying to troubleshoot a technical problem, being able to scan through a dozen or more Reddit threads can be quite useful. If you’re looking for a place to eat, it’s nice to get results from Yelp and TripAdvisor instead of just Google Maps. Searching for “Richard Socher” also brought up useful details that Google missed, such as stories from TechCrunch about his time at Salesforce and discussions on Hacker News about his past work.
But there are just as many scenarios in which the siloed approach struggles. As part of some unrelated story research, for instance, I was trying to look up examples of telecom executives saying they didn’t want to become “dumb pipes” for internet traffic. It’s an oddly specific query, but one that’s best-served by a long list of results from a wide range of sources. By contrast, having to scroll through You.com’s horizontal web results panel was tedious—especially because You.com doesn’t display article dates—and the other panels further down the page whiffed on the query, mostly consisting of Reddit posts and YouTube videos about home piping issues.
You.com’s panels also occasionally led to some confounding results. When I searched for ‘iPhone 13 Pro deals,” for instance, one of the results panels came from StackOverflow, with information about PHP Arrays. And while trying to troubleshoot an issue with my newsletter, I was presented a panel of scientific research from arXiv.org.
Even when everything’s working as intended, the panel-based approach can feel limiting. Searching for the pianist Keith Jarrett, for instance, returned 20 results from the web, followed by Reddit gossip, quick facts, some videos, a handful of outdated news stories, an odd detour into ESPN (for the rugby player by the same name), and a list of songs that only link out to Spotify. This broad overview of different sources is somewhat useful, but it lacks the depth you get by digging through a traditional search engine, such as Google.
Socher argues that You.com’s depth will improve as it adds more apps, and that its horizontal panels can do a better job lifting new sources to prominence without making users dig past the first page of search results in the first place.
“Everyone can participate on this page,” he says. “You don’t have to buy your way into it with ads or do all the SEO stuff.”
But as You.com adds more sources, it’ll also have to figure out how to balance them all. The act of promoting and demoting different sources already feels somewhat tedious in You.com’s earliest iteration; an influx of sources could become downright exhausting.
That doesn’t make the attempt any less admirable. For decades now, Google has single-handedly set all of our expectations for how web search ought to work, and even its scrappier, privacy-conscious competitors are largely averse to changing the formula. Whether You.com succeeds or not, its perspective is welcome in a space in which fresh ideas are long overdue.
“You look at the online space, and there’s been lots of different kinds of innovation in different areas, except search,” Socher says. “To have such a long, unquestioned dominance as a monopoly is kind of crazy.”