Squify innovates web search, and gives away the profits

Alex Wheeler started Squify to shake up expectations of how a search engine should operate. Will Squify's focus on visualization and charitable giving be enough to secure a foothold?

Image: Squify

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so we are told. Companies like Instagram and Snapchat are capitalizing on the desire for interactions around visual content, but search engines haven't placed a major focus on presenting images in a compelling way.

Squify, a web-based search engine startup, hopes to do just that, by returning search queries that are visually appealing and easy to navigate. Squify presents a 3D selection of top search results that contain a snapshot preview of the website that holds the content, so users get an idea of what the site looks like before they click through. Their goal, of course, is to gain market share in the search market and turn a profit -- but not for the usual reasons.

Squify CEO Alex Wheeler describes the business model as, "A business model where the driving force of a company is not solely measured by the return on investment but the quality of the product they are delivering and changes they have made for the good of people. We firmly believe things are starting to change for the good in recent years and we wanted to make a bold statement by the release of Squify."

The company's major differentiation is their focus on philanthropy. The majority of the revenue they generate is donated to charitable organizations around the world that are doing things like providing clean water and aid for communities in need. Fredrik Hjaltman, a former colleague of Wheeler's at Ericsson, said that Squify's model can help consumers feel good about surfing the web.

"I think it fills that need, that it's not only looking to the capitalistic view or the money view, but also the social view," Hjaltman said.

A list of charitable organizations that Squify supports.
Image: Squify

What are you looking for?

That's the question that you are prompted to answer when making a search query with Squify. The site then presents you with a set number of pages, presented as rectangles with an image, the URL, and a few lines about what content the site contains. Users can swipe left or right, or use the navigational arrows to move through the results. Clicking the down arrow will load more results for your search.

The search service doesn't just ping the top one million sites, so you can possibly get some unique, but still relevant, results. Also, Squify doesn't store your searches for the sake of privacy.

The site, which is currently in beta, offers a 2D and 3D mode for viewing results. The search results come from the search engine Blekko, and the images come from a platform that the Squify team built using Python and PhantomJS. Wheeler explains that the front end image search was created using various libraries, such as three.js and jQuery, and that it operates in tandem with the backend.

"It's been created very much as a client/server 'responsive' application, where the presentation layer is already loaded in the browser and we are simply passing data requests and receiving JSON [JavaScript Object Notation] of raw search data from the backend," Wheeler said.

To power the image scraping, Squify operates 120 thumbnail servers in the US and the EU. For servers, the team is using the Intel E3-1240 v3, and Wheeler said they are using, "squid to cache and block ads to increase performance." Wheeler also said that creating a scalable thumbnail service has been the most challenging part of the process.

Squify also offers 2D search results.
Image: Squify

Looking ahead

All startups face potential issues in the early days, but Squify is stepping into a particularly challenging space. They are going up against Google and Yahoo, with the hopes of disrupting the concept of a search engine.

"The major bump in the road is the competition. You have some really huge companies that are very fierce when it comes to competition. So, that's a possibility for a huge problem. But, at the same time, I think that the privacy for the search as well is what makes things interesting," Hjaltman said.

Because of this, the main focus moving forward will be marketing and PR, trying to get consumers on board with Squify's mission. The company plans to reach out to some major charities, and the create a platform for users to donate to individuals in need as well, and eventually create a separate philanthropic arm of the organization to manage the charitable giving.

In addition, the company is moving forward with a laundry list of new features to deploy over the next few months. Short term, they are looking to integrate Leap Motion gesturing, integrating Oculus Rift, and enabling mobile and tablet support.

While the company is moving quickly to roll out new features, they aren't on anyone's time but their own. The company hasn't taken an investment yet, and they aren't in a hurry to. Wheeler is still working as a contractor to support himself, but hopes to eventually run Squify full-time.

"It's about having fun with a technology company whilst we do a bit of good for the world," Wheeler said.

Also see