Algolia’s Quest to (re)Build the Search Layer of the Internet

Jun 30, 2014
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Screenshot 2014-06-30 09.37.59

Back in 2012, I sat down with two former Exalead engineers and they looked me square in the eyes and said they had built a search engine that was faster on mobile than anything that existed – Elastic or otherwise – and that they wanted to be for databases what Google was for web pages.

A year and a half later Algolia has moved beyond mobile, now powering web search engines for popular sites like Crunchbase, Product Hunt, and, of course, Rude List. Much of their US-based customer development has been accelerated thanks to their acceptance into the Y-Combinator program in the Silicon Valley, and Algolia announced this month that they have raised the increasingly popular Second Seed Round, with funding now totaling $2.8 Million, the most recent round having been led by Storm Ventures.

Earlier this month, speaking with Algolia’s head of Business Development Gaëtan Gachet, I mentioned that my original prediction of 2012, that the company would be bought for $100 Million by LinkedIn, still looked pretty good. Gaëtan objected, saying that acquisition for its search capacity by a large player like LinkedIn was “not in the DNA of Algolia,” and that the company planned to build out the “Search Layer” of the internet.

Building the Internet, Brick by Brick

In the last few years, Platform players have sprung up, initially around cloud hosting, but increasingly around ‘layers’ of the internet – that is, around isolated, complicated processes that make up a non-trivial part of a digital company, and are expensive to scale on your own. SendGrid/Mailjet/Mailgun have taken to the Email Layer, while Twilio has taken to the SMS/Telecommunications Layer. WordPress/Prestashop/Wix have taken to the Website-creation layer, and Algolia is eye-ing every Search Bar on the internet.

My initial concern with this was that Google had already tried to do “Powered by Google” many years ago, and, for whatever reason, they pulled out of that business (perhaps because they no longer need to be inside your website to know everything about you, or because custom Google search-bars weren’t generating enough ad revenue perhaps.

But perhaps the world is ready for a post-Google search experience – after all, search is becoming less of a priority for Google (that is, Google is no now only a piece, albeit a core piece, of their work on Android, Chromebook, wearables, etc.). In addition, the web has changed in the past 10 years – web pages are less important than databases, and Algolia is killer for database search. The idea that one search engine would have access to every database on the web – that’s a pretty powerful position.

As a product, Algolia still has a bit of development to work towards – enabling the long-tail use cases of search. Everyone wants something a little different, and Algolia can handle 98% right now, meaning that the 2% suddenly seems to be the most important. For example, custom results on a per-user basis, or the ability for each user to have a custom search experience, is a weak-point of Algolia, given that much of the legwork in producing search results is done in advance (and thus, not customizable while maintaining the blazing search speed users have come to expect).

Is there a bigger picture to managing search across every app & web page? Perhaps, though I can’t claim to see it today. What will it take to get from 100s of paying clients, where the company is today, to 1000s or hundreds of 1000s of paying clients? Well, more than $2.8 Million, that’s for sure. But also, likely a freemium offer (though Algolia has made no sign of looking to release a free, ad-driven version of their search bar). If the next 18 months are as productive as the last 18 months, though, the bigger picture will be clear pretty quickly.