The Google-killers?

A team of ex-Google engineers have debuted search engine Cuil to mixed reviews. Have VC firms Greylock, Madrone and Tugboat backed a contender or a start-up flop?

The Silicon Valley blogosphere was atwitter this week with the launch of Cuil.com, a well hyped but until recently highly secretive search engine designed by a team of ex-Google engineers.

So far, the response has been mixed. Reviews of the search engine have ranged from cautious praise to caustic criticism, with most bloggers falling somewhere in between. Some hailed Cuil’s sleek interface and aesthetics, but most characterised its search prowess as leaving something to be desired.

The site’s debut attracted more than 50 million unique users, according to Cuil’s website, but was also hampered by reports of first-day bugs and other problems that forced Cuil to temporarily shut down the search engine.

The lukewarm reception may not have been what Cuil backers Greylock Partners, Madrone Capital Partners and Tugboat Ventures hoped for when they originally invested in the Silicon Valley-based firm. Over the last two years, the trio has poured $33 million (€21 million) into Cuil, betting that the start-up’s unique method of indexing and archiving web pages for internet searches would revolutionise the Google-dominated search engine landscape.

But whether it actively promoted the perception or was unfairly pigeonholed as a potential “Google-killer” by the media, Cuil has always faced higher expectations than most search engine start-ups.

Part of the hype stems from Cuil’s Google-laden pedigree.  Cuil’s senior management features several former high-profile Google employees, including Cuil co-founder Anna Patterson, chief architect of Google’s search index TeraGoogle. Vice president of engineering Russell Power and vice president of products Louis Monier also spent considerable time at Google before joining Cuil.

The rest of the buzz centers on Cuil’s grand claims of devising a search index of 120 billion web pages, three times the size of Google’s, arguably meaning internet users have more of a chance of finding offbeat sources of information on Cuil than on Google.

Cuil also prides itself on preserving the privacy of its users. Because its search algorithms rank web pages based on page content and not on popularity or links to other relevant pages, Cuil says personal search history is always private. Google has increasingly faced complaints by civil liberties groups concerned with the tracking of user searches.

Reflecting their faith in the promise of Cuil, Madrone, Greylock and Tugboat have all brought in heavy-hitting partners to the start-up’s board of directors.

Madrone general partner Greg Penner has joined Cuil after serving on the board of directors of Global Hyatt and Wal-Mart, where he headed the retail giant’s website. Greylock’s Dave Strohm led the firm’s founding investment in internet advertising company Doubleclick, which was purchased earlier this year by Google for $3.1 billion. Tugboat Ventures’ Dave Whorton is the founding partner of the firm and has held high-level positions at Netscape and Hewlett-Packard.