On Cuil, the new relevancy search engine (a rant)

Cuil, the new search engine looking for relevancy rather than popularity has seen the light of day today. Developed by former Google employees,it claims to be able to crawl through 120 billion pages (that is 3x more than Google and 10x more than Microsoft’s Live search). But what does it actually do and how does it perform?

Well I had had the chance to play around with it today, and I must say I am not overly impressed. Aside from the high server load and time-outs I managed to find either one of the two things:

  • Nothing, or
  • Anything but what I was after

Please read on to read more about my thoughts and usability concerns about Cuil…


2.1 million : 0 – what are the odds

Casing point, I am after references to “information architecture and Flash development blogs” (you guessed it, I am looking for yours truly) I am greeted with no results. Nada. Google: 2.1 million results. MS Live: 3.6 million results. Shame really, but hey, let’s not give up just yet. “Web design with Yahoo maps” – 3 results, all from the same domain.


Relevancy vs popularity – mixed blessing

Looking back a few months when Google announced that you could now also bid on brand names for Adwords I was one of many many users who were a bit sceptical. Are we now going to be swamped by a number of irrelevant ads when entering a company’s brand name? Well, in some cases we were. Now with Cuil the same thing is happening. In fact, thanks to the relevancy of keywords we are being greeted by a number of websites with similar phrases as what we were looking for, but displaying anything but relevant information. Go ahead, enter “Information Architecture and Web Design“. You will notice that you are greeted by a number of results (1,775 results at the time of writing), which doesn’t sound too bad. But now go to pages 2-10, and you will notice a very familiar number or results with the exact same text, but different URLs. Here they are, your spam sites. And this is just the tip of the ice berg (feel free to enter any query and you will probably notice the same problems).

Obviously, this is just day 1 of the search engine, and obviously the developers are going to do their best to improve upon their search engine and the way it finds results, but at the moment it can be a bit of a nightmare.

For more information on similar tests, please see Danny Sullivan’s article about Cuil’s relevancyPete Norrington


Usability concerns

As with many new sites and designs, it is time for a bit of critique. Cuil uses a similar colour scheme to what we are used to: Blue main links, black text and green URLs are giving us that familiar search engine feel. What is new is the 2 or 3 column layout and that the pagination is embedded into the footer.Here are three usability issues I would think Cuil should address in the future:


Column layout:

The column layout is a nice idea, as it allows you to display information in an orderly, screen-filling fashion. Add imagery and users can easily make a connection between these call to actions. This usually works pretty well for a numbered amount of slots showing distinguishable information (say for example a list of all inspirational holiday ideas, with an image you can associate the idea with and a short descritption of what you can expect). However, for seach results I am struggling to understand the logic.

Users are used to seeing a results page in a coupon-style approach, meaning a long panel of information, sometimes preceeded by an image, a title, a short description and a call to action to read more. Google is the exact same, bar the image. It allows scanning and since information can be sometimes long or sometimes short it doesn’t cause any problems with the layout. In a column / panel style you are far more restrictive.


Pagination in the footer area:

Pagination is always welcome if you have a number of results. However pagination at the bottom of the page can lead to some unwanted results. From a usability point of view, users (especially of the older generation) are far more confident in using pagination if it is not entirely moved to the bottom of the page, as the risk of accidentally clicking outside the browser onto the task bar are far less, and you can easily distinguish between what is part of the site / browser and what isn’t.

Another important factor in a search engine is the ability to see what you searched for again (you will notice that all 3 major search engines – Google, MSN, Yahoo – have the search input fields pre-filled repeated at the bottom to show clearly what you searched for and how to amend the search without having to go back to the top.

With Cuil this is a different story: the pagination is at the bottom of the page, with links such as “About”, “Privacy” or “Add Cuil to FireFox” appearing before the pagination, thus alienating the pagination even more.



I think this is a very neat feature: the ability to filter the relevance by category (such as author or related themes). However I am not sure if the location of the filter as well as the accordeon effect are really that useful. I would have suggested a “advanced search” style panel or button which would then expand the categories, and instead of hiding the items within each category in an accordeon I would have every shown the 5-10 most relevant, or I would have given each category an ‘expand’ button. In my opinion this would improve the look and feel of the results filter and also make it (at least for certain generations) easier to use.



This was but a short outlook on Cuil, the new relevancy search engine. I am sure that most of the issues are going to be fixed soon, and I am guessing by the time I get home from work tomorrow most of the result difficulties will have been looked at or are going to be in the process of being fixed. I believe that Cuil will become a great tool for relevant information to subjects one is researching, but up until now my money is going to be on the “major 3” 😉

One Comments

  • Peter

    July 29, 2008

    I’m not a fan of this multi-column format. What are the “top results”? The one’s you scan across the window? Or the most relevant.

    Try resizing a search result window. As you narrow the window, a top-of-column result vanishes a long way down the page. Helpful?

    Not that Cuil’s are often that relevant. I ran some more tests today.

    And the paginiation/footer issues are worse than you think!


    But it may all work out in the end!

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