Two years ago I asked whether you’d be willing to pay a subscription fee to use an ad-free, privacy-focused search engine that doesn’t collect your data. While many respondents to my wholly unscientific poll were receptive to the idea, the search engine startup that inspired the question found that not enough people were willing to pay to make a subscription-based search engine a viable business model.

Neeva has announced it’s shutting down, less than two years after publicly launching its $4.95 per month search engine.

The company says building a search engine from the ground up was the easy part, relatively speaking. Convincing users to adopt it was the hard part. And it wasn’t just because it’s hard to get people to pay for something that competitors offer for “free.” Potential users understood the trade-off: if you want an ad-free search experience that doesn’t track your data, one way to get it is to pay for it.

The company even tried to sweeten the deal in recent months with the introduction of an AI search experience and support for features like AI summaries of Reddit threads, a “Bias Buster” that could present opposing viewpoints on topics, and a mobile AI search app.

But, according to the company’s shut down announcement, “contrary to popular belief, convincing users to pay for a better experience was actually a less difficult problem compared to getting them to try a new search engine in the first place.”

In other words, Google is the dominant player in this space, and it’s hard to convince people to try anything else. There are a handful of competitors including Microsoft’s Bing and privacy-centric services like DuckDuckGo and Brave Search. But not only are they all free to use and supported by advertising, but they also collectively have a pretty small global market share compared with Google.

While I’m not sure I’d bank on the idea that Google will never face serious competition, at this point it seems like competing with Google means fighting an uphill battle unless you happen to be in a market where Google is largely unavailable (like China, where Baidu is the dominant search engine), or where another company already dominates (like Yandex, in Russia).

Folks who did sign up for Neeva should receive refunds for the unused portions of their subscriptions in the coming weeks, and the company says it will delete all user data soon. Customers who subscriber via iOS can request a refund by following Apple’s instructions.

You can find more details about Neeva’s shutdown in the company’s FAQ.

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  1. I saw the Liliputing article on Neeva two years ago. I haven’t heard of them since. It’s tough to get traction when most people have never heard of you.

  2. Personally, I don’t belive that any subscription-based service can be “tracking-free”.
    That say, as non-american based user, most US-based search engives may be not revalent to my region.

    1. Exactly.

      I think Neeva had a way taller barrier than they initially predicted, and it goes further than what they are stating there.

      I do agree with them that people paying for services is less of a problem (if the price isn’t too high of course) than convincing people to switch from the services they already use. Inertia is the biggest problem of all. Look at Twitter and how people are unwilling to switch to something else despite there being options available, despite all the crap the CEO has already done in terms of privacy, moderation, and even criminal behavior.

      But in the end, there are other two major problems in the approach in general. First, depending on payment method, this means whoever is signing up for the service also has to trust the company not to store stuff like credit card payment data, which is a tall barrier of entry by itself, particularly for the target market which is likely privacy conscious people.

      The prospect of a company exploiting your search engine behavior for advertisement is still much better than the prospect of a company leaking or exploiting your payment information.

      And then you compound that with a company that is smaller and less known.

      As someone worried about privacy myself, I’d rather stick with even the most mass data collection options possible, using alternate strategies to enhance privacy, rather than giving away credit card information which is highly identifiable, way more sensitive and hard to mitigate.

      Ultimately though, I imagine it also makes no sense to have a smaller paid version of something that you can already have free of charge. I’m not talking about search engines in general, I’m talking about privacy focused search engines. DuckDuckGo, Brave search, Startpage and others comes to mind. Plus tools that check and enhance your privacy somehow – VPNs, more private DNS servers, TOR, etc. That’s the way the privacy community is going for these days.

      1. There’s a bit more of a network effect keeping you using any particular communication service (i.e. “I can’t leave, everyone I know and might want to know is on there”) than a search engine.