Neeva, an ad-free Google search alternative that launched last June, will finally make good on plans to charge a subscription fee for its service.
But instead of immediately throwing a paywall in front of prospective users, the startup is launching a free tier. Neeva’s free version will also be ad-free, but it’ll come with monthly usage limits and restrictions on certain features, such as Slack integration. Those who pay $5 per month for a Neeva Premium subscription will get extra perks to be determined later. (VPN service and a password manager are likely candidates.)
Cofounder Sridhar Ramaswamy, who ran Google’s entire ad business until 2018, says that the freemium approach stands a better chance of getting people out of their Google habit. He notes that users who perform at least 10 queries in Neeva and install the company’s browser extension are three times more likely to stick with the search engine indefinitely. When users perform most of their searches in Neeva, their willingness to pay increases significantly.
“We looked at this and said, we need to have a broad funnel of people who try Neeva, and once we show our value, often they’ll subscribe to the product,” Ramaswamy says.
A calmer search engine
A lack of ads—and having your online activity monitored for tracking purposes—isn’t Neeva’s only hook. Its integration with services such as Slack, Notion, and Dropbox means you can search for personal information alongside results from the web, and if you search for products to buy, you’ll see carousels of reviews from trusted sites. Some of Neeva’s results can be expanded into a preview pane, for instance showing you the pros and cons of a particular smart home hub or oven mitt.
Ramaswamy says the company has performed sentiment analysis on some Neeva users, and found that they feel calmer and more encouraged when they use the search engine, largely because it emphasizes trusted information sources over sponsored or overly SEO-optimized ones.
“The fact that people bought into our vision was pleasantly surprising,” he says.
Still, Neeva may have scared users off by telling them up front that they’d eventually have to pay. While the company has yet to actually collect any money from users and has offered three-month trials without a credit card, it also constantly reminded them that the clock was ticking.
“The account setup that we’ve offered in the past has always had with it the implication that at some point you would need to pay, so it felt like a free trial for a paid service,” says Steve Shure, Neeva’s chief business officer. “It doesn’t feel like that anymore.”
The boundaries of Neeva’s free version will now be more ambiguous. Ramaswamy says that Neeva will start by limiting users to 60 queries per month, but that limit could change and won’t be disclosed to users up front. Neeva may also offer a grace period when users hit their limit, giving them a chance to pay before it takes away access outright. For new users, an actual hard paywall could be weeks or months away.
“We are going to be very, very generous in terms of restrictions,” Shure says.
More perks to come
The fluid nature of Neeva’s business model also extends to the benefits it plans to offer paid subscribers. Ramaswamy floats a lot of ideas beyond just removing all usage limits. Paying users will get invited to a community forum where they can interact with product managers, and they may get access to other privacy-centric services such as a VPN and a password manager. A foray into NFTs isn’t out of the question, either.
But none of those initiatives are launching just yet. Shure says Neeva’s VPN and password manager plans still aren’t finalized, as the company is still in discussions with potential partners. The company hasn’t ruled out broadening its service to include other perks, such as email or cloud storage.
In other words, a lot’s still up in the air for this fledgling search engine. But Neeva’s commitment to being ad-free is resolute. After all, it’s the main differentiator Neeva has, even compared to other privacy-centric search engines such as DuckDuckGo and Brave. And it’s the key idea on which Neeva has staked its entire business. The free tier is a big deal, because it gives that idea a chance to flourish, Ramaswamy says, noting, “There’s no compromise in our experience, there’s no compromise in business principles, and the ones that get value from Neeva pay for it.”