Y Combinator Challenge #16 – A form of search that depends on design

For more information about the Y Combinator Challenge, check out this post first 

16. A form of search that depends on design. Google doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses. One of the biggest is that they have no sense of design. They do the next best thing, which is to keep things sparse. But if there were a kind of search that depended a lot on design, a startup might actually be able to beat Google at search. I don’t know if there is, but if you do, we’d love to hear from you.

My Idea – Search4Change


There, I beat you to the punch.  If you haven’t checked that site out, stop reading this crap and go there now.  Be careful, though, it’s a time sink.  I actually jumped over there about 20 minutes ago just to grab the URL.  Sigh. 

However great SearchMe might be, I think there’s definitely a little catch.  I actually think of SearchMe more as a discovery engine than a search engine.  It’s a great way to find new and interesting information about stuff you already know about, but it’s not really replacing G/Y/L as the best way to find the answer to a question.  That’s something that’s going to take a little more time – I’ve previously posted my thoughts about one company that could take on that challenge. My personal opinion is that design is a good way to pull some share from Google on the discovery front, but not so much for core search. 

Stick with me here, ’cause I do actually have an idea.  I’m coming at this with an idea that can put an interesting wrapper in front of a standard “enter text into a box and get a page with 20 blue links” approach.  The revenue sharing may not make you rich, but as we all know, there’s more to life than just adding numbers to your bank account. 

My idea is a search engine that allows users to help save the planet with every search query they run.  I know there are non-profit search engines out there, but by using the core results from a trusted engine and wrapping it with an amazing design and extra features, this search engine could really be differentiated enough to gain some traction.  I’m going to make the assumption that you know how a standard search engine works, and while the back end results would be powered by one of the Big 3’s engines + revenue sharing plans, here are some features that would set the front end apart.

  • Instead of just having a generic “every search contributes 1/10th of a penny to The Human Fund” heading on the top, the user would see something tangible that they are contributing to, along with the progress that has been made.  For example, users might see a picture of a tree – the bottom 75%might be in full color and the top 25% would be greyed out with the message “only 500 more searches needed before this tree can be planted in Brazil.” 
  • The site would introduce a concept of multipliers.  For each multiplier level you reach, the impact of your search contributions would go up by a factor of 1.  For example, if the standard contribution is 5 cents per search, a person at multiplier level 10 would generate 50 cents per search. 
  • Multipliers could be gained by adding a sponsoring company’s banner to your main search page.  For example, Nike might put up an offer to sponsor your search results in exchange for a +1 addition to your multiplier score.  Users could choose to accept this offer and have a Nike banner appear in the search result page.  Since users have control over the ads that they see, this is a good example of using a “permission marketing” technique that Seth Godin wrote about.
  • Users could also earn multipliers by recruiting their friends/family to join the site.  This is similar to raising money for walk-a-thons – this could simply be referred to a “search-a-thon”.  Users could see a list of their friends or family who are using the site, along with rankings displaying which member of the group has raised the most money to date.  In theory, you could also put in some standard social-networking stuff (or hook it up to Friend Connect).
  • Instead of contributing a small amount for each search they conduct, users could opt-in to a feature that would be more like a simple lottery-style game.  For example, users would run search queries and would not generate any money for each search, but for every 10,000th search executed, the lucky user who ran that search would get a $100 donation made in their name.  This adds a little fun and excitement to the site, as raising money 1 cent at a time can feel like a pretty long (and boring) uphill battle before any progress is made.

What do you guys think about this one?  Am I missing something huge when I make the claim that search cannot be won with design alone?


4 responses to “Y Combinator Challenge #16 – A form of search that depends on design

  1. This is what FreeCause does.


    The non-profit orgs don’t care as much about design as they do about rev share from search queries, integration into existing databases, and list-building tools built into the toolbars that drive constituents back to the organization’s homepage.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the link – that’s definitely an interesting concept, although I would argue that while non-profits don’t care about design, users do. The intent of my idea isn’t so much around raising the money for a non-profit, but more about providing a “Google + 1” that still provided the same end results, but was different enough that a percentage of users would be willing to switch to Search4Change to be their default start page.

  3. What about making this organizational specific? For example an University of Michigan (Go Blue!)
    or Seattle Public Schools, and have alumni, students and others use the search engine to raise money to help build a new building (brick by brick) a.k.a. a startup a week) or a new computer lab, etc. It would sort be like using a organizational sponsored credit card in which every time an alumni uses their card with the school colors on it, the credit card company gives some of profits to organization. That way users could use the search site to support the cause or non profit that they are most interested in.

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