Google Acquires Cuil Patent Applications

According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) assignment database, Google has acquired the pending patent applications of one time search rival Cuil, touted when launched as a potential Google Killer.

On July 28, 2008, the search engine Cuil went live with hopes from many that it would rival Google in technological know-how and create some competition for the search engine. Those hopes were fueled in part by the fact that search engine was started by former Google employees Anna Patterson and Russell Power, a co-founder from IBM, Tom Costello, and they were also joined by Altavista founder and ex-googler Louis Monier as well. The company received a fair amount of funding before it launched, likely in-part due to the past employment history of its founders.

When Cuil launched, it supposedly had within its index more that three times as many Web pages as Google, and ten times as many as Microsoft. It promised not to retain information about searchers past search histories or surfing patterns as a way of distinguishing itself from Google. Bloomberg News called it one of the most successful start ups of 2008, and there were some real high hopes that the new search engine would rival Google.

Things seemed to start going south for Cuil shortly after launch. After a month, Louis Monier left the company after disagreements with CEO Tom Costello. Search results were presented in a 2 column format rather than a single column, and were accompanied by thumbnail images. I noticed at the time, a few complaints about the two column format, and in my personal experience using the site, the thumbnails presented often weren’t very good choices, and not representative of the pages or topics being returned in search results. The Cuil website shut down in September of 2010, with news of a mysterious acquisition falling through surfacing a week later.

The transaction assigning 7 pending patents to Google have an execution date of February 4, 2011, but weren’t recorded at the patent office until a few days ago, on February 14th, 2012. The USPTO database doesn’t provide any of the details behind the transaction, such as financial terms. It appears that Cuil Co-Founder Anna Lynn Patterson returned to Google, possibly in September of 2010, with the job title “Director of Google Research.” I’ve written a little about her work on phrase-based indexing while she was at Google in the past.

These pending patents tend to focus primarily upon search interfaces, such as how multiple tabs might be presented for query terms that might have different senses of meanings, different types of dropdowns from those to show finer levels of granularity of associated categories, and the ability to drill down and refine queries based upon related aspects, like in the following three screenshots from the patents:

A screenshot from the Cuil patent showing different tabs for different senses of a search result.

A screenshot from the Cuil patent showing deeper levels of categories from one of the tabs.

A screenshot from the Cuil patent showing possible refinements related to a particular category.

There’s a possibility that we might see something like what is described in these patent applications from Google, but I’m actually a little surprised that the patent applications focus upon the user interface of Cuil rather than any methods of indexing search results. They don’t go much detail on how these different types of categories or related results might be identified or generated either. They also don’t show off what was supposed to be one of the strengths of Cuil – their methods of indexing a large number of pages faster and cheaper than Google to create a very deep search index.

Here are the patent applications:

Apparatus and Method for Displaying Search Results with a Variety of Display Paradigms
Invented by Tomas Costello
Assigned to Cuill, Inc.
US Patent Application 20090240672
Published September 24, 2009
Filed: July 24, 2008

Abstract

A graphical user interface includes tabs representative of different classes of search results. The tabs are derived in response to the processing of a query. The different classes of search results group content by meaning, such that a query term with different meanings produces different classes of search results with different meanings.

Further, stacks associated with each tab are derived. Each stack shares common attributes associated with a tab but has a refined meaning representing a different class of search results. Each stack includes text to characterize a class of search results.

Apparatus and Method for Displaying Search Results Using Tabs
Invented by Tomas Costello and Louis Monier
Assigned to Cuill, Inc.
US Patent Application 20090240685
Published September 24, 2009
Filed: July 24, 2008

Abstract

A graphical user interface includes tabs representative of different classes of search results. The tabs are derived in response to the processing of a query. The different classes of search results group content by meaning, such that a query term with different meanings produces different classes of search results with different meanings.

Apparatus and Method for Displaying Search Results Using Stacks
Invented by Tomas Costello
Assigned to Cuill, Inc.
US Patent Application 20090241044
Published September 24, 2009
Filed: July 24, 2008

Abstract

A graphical user interface includes stacks organizing different classes of search results. The stacks are derived in response to the processing of a query. The different classes of search results group content by meaning, such that a query term with different meanings produces different classes of search results with different meanings.

Apparatus and Method for Displaying Search Results with Configurable Columns and Textual Summary Lengths
Invented by Tomas Costello and Edward Lau
Assigned to Cuill, Inc.
US Patent Application 20090241018
Published September 24, 2009
Filed: July 24, 2008

Abstract

A graphical user interface includes configurable parameters to format search results. The configurable parameters include configurable parameters to specify column configuration and textual summary length.

Apparatus and Method for Displaying Search Results with an Associated Anchor Area
Invented by Tomas Costello and Edward Lau
Assigned to Cuill, Inc.
US Patent Application 20090241058
Published September 24, 2009
Filed: July 24, 2008

Abstract

A graphical user interface includes a scroll area displaying search results and a permanently displayed anchored area.

Apparatus and Method for Displaying Search Results with Various Forms of Advertising
Invented by Tomas Costello and Edward Lau
Assigned to Cuill, Inc.
US Patent Application 20090241065
Published September 24, 2009
Filed: July 24, 2008

Abstract

A graphical user interface includes a document retrieved by processing a query. The graphical user interface further includes an advertisement selected based upon the document. The advertisement may include an image, text or an icon.

Apparatus and Method for Displaying Search Results with a Menu of Refining Search Terms
Invented by Tomas Costello
Assigned to Cuill, Inc.
US Patent Application 20090241066
Published September 24, 2009
Filed: July 24, 2008

Abstract

A graphical user interface includes a listing of results derived from processing a query. The graphical user interface further includes a menu of refining search terms that is dynamically derived in response to the processing of the query.

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46 thoughts on “Google Acquires Cuil Patent Applications”

  1. Pingback: Google adds to it’s Search Patent Portofolio | Chase Web Solutions Blog | Raleigh, NC
  2. I very much doubt that Google will “actually” use the patent, they are just buying out the competition to ensure no one else tries to compete with Cuil’s strategy.

  3. Once again Google eats other search engines for breakfast, seems kinda scary really, I like Google, but they can be really under hand, they have far too much power as a search engine, It’s great for the people that they are helping, but endless amounts of bad news for people on their bad side!

  4. Sounds like this was only a matter of time. Google is tough to beat at this point and they continue to diversity their product offerings and reach. I can only imagine how long it would take for a new search engine to really take hold.

    It amazes me how many people (older age bracket), are still using AOL, and don’t what’s powering it.

  5. The real question now is how (not if) Google will ruin or bury the technology from Cuil. They don’t have a great track record with their acquistions.

  6. Wow, awesome! I think they should implement the tabs. It is a really great idea to split the different meaning of a word into separat keyword tabs. The search results will have much more quality and therefore there is much more place for advertising. Thanks for sharing this interesting article!

  7. Don’t be sure that Google will use the patents… They perhaps just bought that patents to ensure that no one else will try to keep up with Cuil’s strategy.

  8. It’s going to be very hard for a startup to compete with Googles indexing and search. They are so far ahead and doing a good job delivering results. Bing is pretty crappy compared to Google and they should have money to compete.

  9. Quick scan of the UI images in the patents and I would speculate they’re appealing for Google and its MetaWeb (Freebase) purchase. Strucuted data makes facet filtering like shown easy. Who knows!

  10. Hi yousaf,

    What’s getting silly? That Google is acquiring so many patents? Or that they are building up a patent portfolio to protect themselves from patent trolls and competitors? Or that they might even use some of the technology described within those patents?

  11. Hi Chris,

    I don’t know if Google would use the technology described in those patents or not, but some of the user interface stuff is interesting, such as the separate tabs for different possible senses or meanings of queries.

  12. Hi Luke,

    Google didn’t acquire these patents until a number of months after Cuil called it quits, and they rehired one of the people who left to form Cuil within a month of Cuil shutting down. It doesn’t appear that Cuil’s failure to thrive as a Google competitor can be attributed in any way to anything that Google did.

  13. Hi Jeff,

    I think it might take something pretty innovative to topple Google at this point, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that someone might come along with something that can. I’ve been wondering for a few years if one of the older information technology companies that have been specializing in enterprise search might try their hands at web search. I don’t know if that will happen, but I’m still not ruling it out completely.

    What amazes me is that at one point in time Yahoo was powering Microsoft’s search, and now Microsoft is powering Yahoo’s.

  14. Hi Greg,

    Google has had a mixed bag of success with their acquisitions. Here they didn’t really acquire Cuil, but they did acquire the patents, and possibly some other assets such as their code and hardware (we don’t know that for certain). It’s possible that they might use some of the technology, but that may be more of a business decision down the road than anything else.

  15. Hi Schwaneberg,

    You’re welcome. I’ve been thinking that search results presented in tabs like that might be a nice thing to see as well. My only issues are how they might determine which tab to make the primary one, which “meanings” might be represented by tabs, and whether there are certain categories or queries where tabs might be more harmful than good.

  16. Hi Arnaud,

    It’s possible that is the reason they made the acquisition. The really innovative thing about Cuil was supposedly its ability to index more pages than Google at a much lower cost, and none of the patents cover that. But that’s something that you wouldn’t want to fall into someone else’s hands if your can help it.

  17. Hi Henrik,

    Google works to refine and improve its search capabilities seemingly everyday, adding new capabilities and approaches regularly. That has to be intimidating to anyone who thinks they might be able to do a better job, even for a startup that might include former Google employees, like Cuil.

  18. Hi Michael,

    Splitting search results into different senses of queries would be ideal for a search centered on entities, concepts, and/or phrase based indexing. It would be in line with the Metaweb acquisition. That does seem like one direction that Google could go in.

  19. Hi Bill and Chris,

    the company shut down its business in 2010, so I think acquiring Cuil by Google was not done only to buy out a competition – a dead competitor isn’t a competitor. In my opinion, they will use these patents to upgrade their search engine.

    On the other hand, it is sad for us to have only a one choice – Google, and few more like Bing and Yahoo. Will anybody change it please?

  20. Hi Martin,

    I don’t think the acquisition of the patents was done to buy out a competitor, or necessarily even to use the technology involved. It seems to be more likely that Google acquired the patents in question as a way to get Anna Patterson to rejoin Google. And if anything that she brought to Google upon her return involved technology developed by Cuill, there wouldn’t be any kind of conflict of interest in Google working upon that technology.

    I’d love to see more competition and more viable search engines. I think the competition would be beneficial to everyone.

  21. Hi Bill,

    the Cuil ended its existence due to huge a loss and I don’t see a sense in acquiring patents that will not bring Google some good juice. Maybe some source code in Cuil can help Google to create more advanced technology for its search engine.

    Competing with Big Trio (Google, Yoahoo, Bing) is impossible at the moment, but who knows, maybe time will bring a new revolution to the IT in a way which Google made many years age when they started.

  22. It’s evident that Google is definitely the search engine king, and it also appears that search engine technology is an industry that can be monopolized, just like any other. Google has a great reputation, it is the most popular search engine, but is it necessary to try and dominate so aggressively? Good post, and thanks for sharing!

  23. Hi Martin,

    There may be some interesting ideas included within that source code that Google could be using. Cuil was reportedly able to index a lot more pages a lot quicker than Google was able to. That technology could have been protected as a trade secret rather than under a patent.

    It’s also possible that a more mature company could come out of nowhere with a way of searching the Web as well, like an IBM or Xerox. I’m not going to rule out that possibility, either.

  24. I remember well the launch of Cuil.I thought it was a really great engine. I know that a lot of people disliked the two column format but I felt that it was cleaner and gave the searcher a more interactive interface, resulting in finding their target site faster.
    I think that Google’s Venice update has made their interface much more dynamic but I would really like to see then do an A/B test on two column SERPs.

  25. My thinking is G is just trying to cover it’s bases tying things up so that some other (future?) search engine won’t be able to make use of this technology. You found it interesting that G was after Cuil’s ‘display’ aspects more so than its ‘search’ aspects, that is something to wonder about for sure. Cuil may have made it, but the way one displays SERP’s is very important, and they really messed up their shot in that regard IMO.
    Thanks – Andy :-)

  26. Hi Andy,

    I thought it was interesting that Cuil’s patents involved the display of search results, and not that Google was after Cuil’s display technology. Cuil only had patents that involved the display of search results. :)

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