Qwant Wants to Be Alternative to Google

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Qwant Wants to Be Alternative to Google
Only a brave - or maybe foolhardy - company would take on Google.

Yet from a small office near the banks of the river Seine, a French search engine called Qwant is doing just that.

The French startup, whose product was released 18 months ago, is tapping into growing anger here that Google has too much control over how Europeans surf the Web.

Some of the region's lawmakers have already called for the breakup of the U.S. search giant, while the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, is in the middle of a long antitrust investigation into Google's roughly 85 percent share of the European search engine market.

"There's a need for a choice," Jean Manuel Rozan, a former financier who co-founded Qwant in 2011, said recently over a cup of coffee. "Europe is the only place in the world where people think that Google is the Internet."

Turning Europe's anti-Google sentiment into a successful business, however, is easier said than done.

Google and its various services, including maps and online shopping, hold a tight grip over how Europeans search for information. And despite Europeans' perceived antipathy toward U.S. tech companies like Amazon and Facebook, the companies continue to have strong followings across the 28-country bloc.

To stand out from the crowd, Qwant sold a 20 percent stake to Axel Springer, the German publisher, this year for roughly $6 million (roughly Rs. 37 crores), mostly to buy European servers. Mathias Dopfner, the publisher's chief executive, has openly criticized Google's online dominance. Rozan says Qwant made about a $1.8 million (roughly Rs. 11 crores) profit last year but will post a loss for 2014 as the company expands into new markets like Germany. The company employs fewer than 50 people between its offices in Paris and Nice, a city in southern France.

The French startup also has also tried to tap into Europeans' growing distrust about how they are tracked online, as the likes of Google and Facebook use data gathered from people's online histories to tailor advertising specifically to individuals.

Along with other Google alternatives like DuckDuckGo and Ixquick, a Dutch search engine, Qwant says it does not track people's online movements and sells advertising based only on individuals' search queries.

"We can build a valuable company that can deliver search results to people without tracking them," said Rozan, who said that people made about 1.6 billion search queries through Qwant in 2014 - or less than half the search queries that Google handles in just one day.

Qwant also plans to release a child-friendly search engine - Qwant Junior - in early 2015. Google has announced similar plans, but in a sign that the French government is eager to find an alternative to the U.S. tech company, the country's education ministry has said that it will start using Qwant Junior in some French schools next year.

"If you have 3 million children who will search on Qwant, then there'll be 6 million parents who will know about Qwant," said Eric Leandri, another of the startup's co-founders, who added that the startup was in discussions with Axel Springer to become the default search engine on some of the publisher's websites. "When we launched, everyone explained to us why we shouldn't do this. Now, they think it's a great idea."

Qwant's other twist to the traditional search engine model is to include social media posts from services like Twitter directly in search results.

When people use the company's search engine, for example, four columns appear on the webpage that offer different takes on Internet queries. That ranges from traditional search results to something called Qnowledge Graph, which offers general information based on the search, drawn from sites including Wikipedia.

"We want to give results from both the Web and social networks," said Rozan of Qwant. "If we're just going to offer the same service as Google, we should stop now."

The French could also learn some lessons from Europe's past. In 2008, a French consortium - backed by the country's politicians - created Quaero, an online search tool that was supposed to rival its U.S. counterparts. Yet after $240 million (roughly Rs. 1,515 crores) in public and private funding and several efforts to revamp the project, Quaero shut at the end of 2013.

Despite previous failures to a build a credible European search engine, Qwant's co-founders hope its focus on privacy and attempts to combine social media posts and traditional search results will set it apart from Google, whose projects are as diverse as a smartphone operating system and trying to develop driverless cars.

"Google isn't a search engine anymore," said Leandri of Qwant. "We are just a search engine. We don't do robots."

© 2015 New York Times News Service

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