findthebest-searchKevin O’Connor thinks he’s found the future of search. He probably hasn’t, but after speaking with him I’m not sure he actually thinks he has either. It is more that his new company FindTheBest is a smart, well-designed search tool faced with the problem of differentiating itself from Google.

FindTheBest, which launched late in 2010, is indeed different. O’Connor calls it a research engine. He began the company after selling DoubleClick, which he founded, to Google for $3.1 billion in 2008. He was unhappy with the amount of quality information he’d get from Google when he turned to it to make decisions. FindTheBest is supposed to bridge the gap between Google’s Knowledge Graph — which brings those little fact boxes up when you search a famous figure or a movie — and a vertical search engine, like Yelp, or Kayak. It covers 2,000 topics (sample: cars, guns, whiskey, H-1 B visas, venture capital firms), drawing on 59 billion data points for its 726 million listings. It’s comprehensive, and when you get where you need, useful.

Searching for Stanford University, I get taken to a page that, among many other points of information, lets me know the acceptance rate, weather, median GPA and cost when I get there. I can pick my way through FindTheBest to locate detailed comparison engines for different bottles of whiskey, cars or guns. In each I can easily sort listed products by several relevant factors (for example with cars: cost, gas mileage, power, smart rating). It’s well designed and the information, when accessed, is easily sortable.

I’m just not sure who would ever use it on a regular basis.

Google sees 5.9 billion searches each day. Over three years into its history, FindTheBest sees 23 million visits each month. The site’s future growth seems limited in both its design and our need.

O’Connor talks about how FindTheBest is essentially a lot of different products mashed into one, because he says he understands the importance of having one brand front. But on Google, I can head to the home page, type in a query and can scroll between search listings, news, images and the works. On FindTheBest it works best to go to the homepage, scroll down to the topic you want to search in and then click through. For a product that tries to optimize the best parts of Wikipedia and Yelp, it’s awkward. It tries to be both and ends up as neither. It informs us, but adds in steps to the process. I look for a hotel, but I end up on TravelNow if I want to book.

There are all of these individual uses, poking out of a greater hub that doesn’t know how to position itself. Today, FindTheBest exemplified this central dilemma again, launching a planned Trulia/Zillow disruptor called Homes. Set within the greater FindTheBest website, it brings together housing information from Move Inc., Core Logic, and ListHub with publicly available information to provide detailed data on almost all of the 105 million homes in America along with key neighborhood qualities (schools, etc.)

Again, as a source of information Homes is great. It might be the best stalking tool ever imagined. I now know that my apartment building was purchased in 1985, there was a private deed transfer in 2008, and the building owner refinanced in June 2013. If I was in the mood to buy a house — I wish – there’s a two-bedroom condo for sale around the corner from me. But again, I’m left taking extra steps if I want to contact the realtor, when that functionality is already baked into Trulia and Zillow.

Using FindTheBest, as much as I liked parts of it, I couldn’t get passed thinking about how you can make the most beautiful tools, but if you can’t find a way to involve them into people’s everyday lives, you risk having them siloed into parts unknown in the Internet. Talking to O’Connor, the one thing he can’t answer is how FindTheBest becomes indispensable. As a journalist, FindTheBest’s collated company information could be helpful for stories. But it is still set three-clicks back from Google and the site itself requires some negotiation, meaning I probably won’t turn to it. If it can’t find a way to bring itself to the top of mind when people are searching for schools or researching topics for assignments, the people who would benefit from it are also going to turn to Google.

After talking FindTheBest up as the future of search, even O’Connor admits that his company will likely always rely on Google for as much as half its own traffic.

FindTheBest is a cool tool. The new homes addition is something else. But it’s an encyclopedia stashed away on the shelf for good, not destined to your change your life for good. It separates out our thinking from our actions, when all other companies are trying to merge the two online. And research engine or not, the economics of search — especially for a company that seems so weary of e-commerce — rely on selling your large audience to advertisers. By painting FindTheBest into a niche, O’Connor risks creating something he can’t monetize — a product that is good, but overlooked; smart, but ultimately doomed.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]