Leap.it thinks that a visual, social approach to search can unseat Google from its throne
When you do a Google search, before you scroll down there’s a good chance your screen is mostly just filled up with ads. If this were to launch today, would you use it? Like, seriously use it? Sure, it’s accessible. But there’s a thick layer of commercial imperatives, quality judgments and assumptions that lie between you and the information that you get to see.
Kansas City’s Leap.it isn’t the first company to take a run at Google. But Leap.it -- which has been open for searches since the end of February -- is the first to come my way that I’ve had any fun using. There’s no blue links, for a start, which feels nice on the eye. Why every search engine feels the need to display its links in an identically similar manner, is beyond me.
Leap.it results come up displayed on cards. For each search, it integrates social links, searching into Twitter streams, with real-time news and historical information. It’s like Google, plus Google News, rolled in with a Twitter search. If you log in and create an account you can curate and share your own search ‘perspectives’ with others.
For instance, I Leap’d myself (hard part of starting a new search company, turning your company name into a verb): my most recent articles came up, mixed in with my most popular, and some older things I’d done from way back, all cut in with Twitter references to my work and articles that had linked to me. It was both informative and ego gratifying.
“I like to think of search today as going to the library. You go to the card catalogue, which takes you directly to the book,” Leap.it CEO and Founder Mike Farmer says. “But what about a search experience, where you go to the card catalogue and we serve those results, but along the way you get let in on all of these conversations.”
Farmer says that he has been working on Leap.it for three years. The company had a small win this week, when Foundry Group Managing Director Brad Feld led an AngelList syndicated investment into the company. Leap.it isn’t Farmer’s first search company either. He began a voice search company, but had the misfortune of launching 18 months before Google rolled out the same feature.
People are ready for something in search that isn’t Google, Farmer thinks. At SXSW this year, he says that going around town handing out his company’s “We Are The Algorithm” T-shirts, it felt like he was starting an uprising. “If you think about Google, you’ve been using it for 12 years. And it certainly has gotten to know you,” he says.
“We didn’t go at like this, but some people just fundamentally like the fresh start of Leap.”
I contend that maybe Google has gone too far past where people are comfortable, that most people a dozen years ago didn’t see the journey ending up here. Farmer seems to be wary of trashing Google too directly. “I think you’re touching on something that’s been brought to our attention. There's a big surprise at the level to which people want change. I don’t want to call out privacy, but it feels that there’s this human desire to do a balance-check when companies get too big,” he says.
There’s a long way to go though, until Leap.it gets to be held up as even a third-tier rival to Google. Its search product itself is fun, but needs improvement. Searching for stories on the 2014 NBA Draft from last night, I hit pre-draft articles, tweets and speculation, before I get to the coverage of the actual event. It is counter-intuitive. As Farmer describes to me, the product is 85 percent of the way there.
When Leap.it is mastered -- and it has already made a good start -- it faces the most vexing issue of all. Google is omniscient. It is the front door to the Internet. Leap.it could be amazing, but how do people get to use it? I’ve used it for the past 36 hours, and even having liked it, such is the influence of Google in my life, for good and bad, I’m not sure I’ll be using Leap.it in another 36 hours.
Farmer says that Google can have the “front door.” There are other ways in. He thinks that distributed, curated search with friends making lists of information that they can share and add to creates a new, more vibrant layer to all of this information, and that by turning search itself into a social network, Leap.it can bind itself with our lives.
If Leap.it takes off and ultimately takes over, long, long shot that this might be, Farmer says he hopes that another Leap.it comes along to knock them off their perch eventually. His company is going to have start selling ads, he says, and that focus on profitability always ends up coming at the expense of product in search, unless a company is “willing to creatively destruct.”
First we have to see if anyone can take Google down a peg. More serious competitors like Bing have tried to ape it too closely, while small companies like Leap.it look like blips in comparison. Google might not be disruptible, in the classic sense. But for what it’s worth, I hope the Leap.its of the world don’t stop trying.