بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
10 July 2022

Sometimes I forget why I’ve taken on this crazy, huge task. Why am I building a search engine? Will it really be better than Google one day? Will people support it? Will people even use it?

And then I read something like The Bullshit Web and I remember, that, yes, there is a point. Even if I make the web better for one person, it’s worth it. Because the way things are is just wrong.

Search engines are in a unique position to fix the situation. Not only do we create a view on the world’s knowledge, we influence it too. If we promote bullshit-free sites, then people will create more bullshit-free sites.

More importantly, search engines are a filter on the world’s knowledge. Do you really want your filter to be “whatever makes $SEARCH_ENGINE more money”, particularly when that means, “show ads instead of search results, and prioritise search results that also make us more money”? We can and should do better.

What will it mean in practice?

What would the ideal non-profit search engine look like in practice, and what would make it better than what we have now?

  1. Ad-free. While this can be achieved now with ad-blockers, this is clearly not a sustainable solution if everyone were to apply it.
  2. Open source. The technology for organising the world’s knowledge should be owned by everyone.
  3. Profit agnostic ranking. Google has an incentive to rank pages that contain Google ads because it makes them more revenue. More generally, Google has an incentive to rank profit-making sites higher so that they make more money. This both gives them more money to spend on advertising, and makes them dependent on their Google ranking, making them more likely to spend on advertising should their ranking get worse.
  4. Community powered ranking. Google tries to work out which sites are interesting by how long you spend on the site. This has an unfortunate side effect for e.g. recipe sites, where there is an absurd incentive to hide the actual recipe after a ton of background and repetitive descriptions of the recipe, to make it more likely for you to get distracted on the way to get to the actual recipe. Instead of looking at how long people spend on a site, we would encourage users to give explicit feedback on rankings and use this to improve our ranking system.
  5. Fast. Google search is surprisingly slow, taking up to half a second for a page load to complete in my measurements. It doesn’t need to be this way. In 2010, Google announced Instant Search that would search as you typed. This was meant to save users two to five seconds per search. Yet Google quietly dropped this feature in 2017, ostensibly to bring search more in line with mobile. I do wonder though, if the change was more motivated by some requirement around adverts. It must be hard to manage auctioning adverts in real-time as users type, particularly if you want the adverts to blend into the search results.
  6. Frictionless. Google has an incentive to show you a results page, so that you see some adverts and are thus more likely to click on them. But often you don’t need to see a results page, for example if there is a single page you need. For example if you are typing “facebook” or “hmrc login” you could go straight there from the address bar. But Google wants you to see a results page first.

Our current implementation of Mwmbl is a long way from doing all these things well, but this is what we’re aiming towards.

The funding question

Search funded by advertising is a recipe for disaster because there will always be a conflict of interest. Get the user to the site as quickly as possible, or show them some ads on the way? Guess which one you will choose if you care about revenue.

There are two ways forward that I can see:

  • The paid subscription model, like kagi.com
  • Donation funded, non-profit model, like Mwmbl - donate here!

There is no guarantee that either approach will work - but it’s got to be worth a try.

The donation model

While I wish Kagi the best, we have chosen the donation model because we want to make the best search engine possible available to everyone. Not everyone can afford to pay for search.

When I read the numbers it makes me feel a little sick. Google’s revenue for search was around $40 billion in Q1 2022. A number so large, I can’t even conceive how big it is. Just 1% of 1% of this would be more money than I’d know what to do with ($4m).

But it also makes me hopeful. If I can create something that just a tiny fraction of people find useful, then I can create a huge amount of value. If there is value, then people will pay for it, if we find the right way to ask. Our current plan is to offer different sponsorship tiers with intangible rewards, for example virtual badges displayed on the user’s profile page.

Of course, there are plenty of non-profits in adjacent spaces that have been successful. I think Wikimedia is the best example to look up to. Also, I believe our values are very closely aligned. If they were open to collaborating or taking on this project then I would seriously consider it, because I think it would give it a much greater chance of success.

What next?

Our current goals are:

  • Index 1 billion pages a month. Help us by installing our Firefox extension to crawl the web. Our ranking evaluations have shown that the biggest improvements come from indexing more pages. So that is our first priority.
  • Raise enough money to form an official non-profit organisation. This will be the first step in making Mwmbl sustainable, beyond being a side-project for a few people.
  • Get to £50 monthly recurring revenue to enable us to upgrade our server (currently costing under €5 a month) - donate here! This will allow us to increase the size of our index, improving our search results.

If you’re interested in helping out, we’re recruiting volunteers, or if you’re a developer, check out the open issues.


Thank you so much to all those that have helped out so far, whether by donating your CPU and bandwidth to crawl the web, giving money to cover our costs, giving your time and skills to fix issues or giving feedback on our Matrix server.

In particular, Colin Espinas has been instrumental in designing and building the new front end, and supporting the development of the extension - thanks Colin!