Birth of Cool (Cuil) – History Repeating Itself?

Fact: Cuil reaped the whirlwind of the media buzz it craved today.  As CNET put it, “Google challenger Cuil launched last night in a blaze of glory. And it went down in a ball of flames. Immediately after launch, the criticism started to pile on: results were incomplete, weird, and missing.”

Analysis:  For several months I’ve had running an RSS feed along the right-hand side of the ol’ blogspace here, entitled “Who’s Talking about ‘the next Google.'”  Ha ha – the RSS feed pulls from a Google News query.

Well, if you judge by the echo chamber hungry for positive tech news amid a down market, you might think “the next Google” has emerged: the birth of Cuil.  (Extra credit if you’re a Miles Davis jazz fan, by the way.)  I may retire the crown, or at least the RSS feed.  Here’s some of the global attention:

Former Googleers unveil Cuil, a new search engine (Reuters – USA)
Cuil was founded by a group of search pioneers, including Costello, who built a prototype of Web Fountain, IBM’s Web engine, and his wife Anna Patterson, architect of TeraGoogle for Google …

Ex-Googler zeigen neue Suchmaschine ( – Wien, Austria)
Hinter Cuil stecken Tom Costello, der bei IBM das Webanalyse-Werkzeug WebFountain geschrieben hat und seine Frau Anna Patterson, die bei Google für den …

Родители Google убьют его своими руками ( – Russia)
Том Кастелло занимался разработкой прототипа Web Fountain, инструмента поисковой аналитики компании IBM, а его жена Анна Паттерсон …

Ex-funcionários do Google criam Cuil, novo serviço de busca (Reuters Brasil)
… que criou um protótipo da Web Fountain, a ferramenta de análise de buscas da IBM, e sua mulher Anna Patterson, arquiteta do imenso índice TeraGoogle …

Nieuwe zoekmachine wil Google van de troon stoten (Techzine – Netherlands)
Terwijl Costello instond voor het ontwerp van IBM Web Fountain, is Patterson de ontwerpster van Google’s gigantische TeraGoogle-index van webpagina’s. …

מנוע חיפוש חדש וקולי – גוגל בבעיה? 
אוןPC – Israel
אחד ממקימי מנוע החיפוש החדש, טים קוסטלו,
היה אחראי בעבר להקמת ה-Web Fountain, כלי המנתח
חיפושים ברשת של IBM. אשתו, אנה פטרסון, הייתה
ארכיטקטית של האינדקס …

Xuất hiện công cụ tìm kiếm muốn “hạ bệ” Google
Dân Trí – Vietnam
Công ty Cuil do một nhóm kỹ sư tiên phong trong lĩnh vực tìm
kiếm, trong đó có Costello – là người xây dựng nên công cụ
phân tích web Web Fountain của IBM. …

I wrote about Cuil about a year ago when I first noticed them (they were stealthy and “Cuill” then, having since dropped the second L to make the “cool” pronunciation more obvious), but that post was on my government blog on JWICS, the top-secret network. In particular, I noted to my intell friends the intellectual lineage behind Cuil, whose founders hail not only from Google (hence the media buzz) but from another Silicon Valley program, IBM’s WebFountain.

WebFountain’s Ups and Downs

Many of my readers in the intelligence community were well aware of WebFountain – but not because of the hype it was getting in 2004 and 2005 (ZDnet called it “the next big thing in corporate search.”)  John Battelle, search analyst and historian of search, was writing “WebFountain, the Long Version,” in which he bought hook, line, and sinker IBM’s exaggerated sense of WebFountain’s place in the world:

Doing yet another public search engine – one that tries to steal market share from Google and Yahoo – simply isn’t a big enough play for IBM. However, the corporate information marketplace currently stands at $15 billion a year, and with WebFountain, IBM may not only redefine it, it could well own it.” – John Battelle, 2004

Battelle’s piece did a great job on the technical side of the WebFountain semantic-engine — lots of entity extraction, natural-language processing, metadata addition and exploitation, analytic tools — but he blew it on the business insight. (He’s been right on many other things since.)  “IBM won’t disclose most of its customers,” he wrote then, which should have been a huge tip-off, but he took it as evidence of stealthy progress. The two “customers” he did cite were Semagix (a long-gone startup, folded into the smallish Fortent) and Factiva, now a part of News Corp.   In fact, Factiva was soon to announce a rather public dumping of WebFountain.

Anyway, intelligence community folks knew of WebFountain not because of the public hype, but because of the fact that we were the only true paying customers at scale that IBM ever had for it.  Our use got covered a little (Battelle mentioned CIA’s use in his article, and DIA spoke openly about our use).  At the time, “the government” was paying millions of dollars per year for the privilege of access to WebFountain and its services. We accessed it from IBM servers at their Almaden Research Lab in Silicon Valley, an early “cloud-based services” approach.  It worked – sort of. We were disappointed overall, and the technology certainly wasn’t a text-analytics silver bullet, as it was sometimes described.

There’s no evidence that the folks at Cuil are purposely hyping their search engine beyond normal marketing – though I was taken aback this evening to see a live interview on Fox News with co-founder Anna Patterson, who said “It took Google a long time to get where they are; we’re in it for the long haul.”

The proof will be in the performance, as it sadly was with WebFountain.  Patterson told the interviewer, “Day One has been rocky, with three times the expected traffic.”  Sort of like Apple’s iPhone App Store fiasco? (Building up expectations in the media and then failing to meet the demand you’ve ginned up.)

More to the point, “search performance” is already a focus of attention: see PC World (“Cuil Stumbles Out of the Gate“) or CNN (“Cuil Not a Google Killer – Yet“) or CNet (“Cuil Shows Us How Not to Launch a Search Engine“).  PC Magazine’s John C. Dvorak was even more blunt: “The New Cuil Search Engine Sucks.”

The most technical assessment is, as usual, by Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, who has seen engines come and go.  He points out the shortcomings but also steers the debate back around to whether Cuil will be able to get traction and significant user share. That’s a business equation to solve, and WebFountain showed that marketing hype can’t always overcome poor performance.

Cuil’s hype certainly was white-hot today.  ReadWriteWeb summed it up with its article, “Wow, How Did Cuil Get So Much Publicity on Day One?!


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4 Responses

  1. […] Birth of Cool (Cuil) – History Repeating Itself?I wrote about Cuil about a year ago when I first noticed them (they were stealthy and “Cuill” then, having since dropped the second L to make the “cool” pronunciation more obvious), but that post was on my government blog on JWICS, … […]


  2. I was among those to pile on.

    For me, the fact that Cuil can’t find itself is pretty damning.

    (Try [Cuil] at


  3. […] with the intelligence community. Also covers the media hype promoted by both WebFountain and Cuil. your search results – Web Search Help CenterPlease browse or search for your issue in […]


  4. […] Birth of Cool (Cuil) – History Repeating Itself? […]


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