Qwant stops dreaming of dethroning Google and shows new ambitions

Vice does not make a monk, but sometimes it is revealing. A few years ago, when Qwant was still one of the leading stars of French Tech, the startup was distributed, for its Parisian premises, in the entirety of an ultramodern building in the very elegant 16th arrondissement. “ search engine that respects your privacy it was then in her favor, at least in appearance. Its charismatic boss and co-founder, Eric Léandri, had achieved, since the creation of the company in 2013 near Nice, to introduce investors, media and politicians from all sides to the dream of a “. Google French web search “, one” sovereign and ethical alternative to Gafa’s omnipotence. If that wasn’t enough, Qwant also wanted to develop virtual reality apps for surgeons, and while we’re at it, it cut croupiers from Google and Apple to payments with Qwant Pay, among other services.

Fast forward to 2022.” Welcome to our modest premises says with a smile Raphaël Auphan, the new general director since July 5, 2021, as he was preparing the coffee himself. At his side is Corinne Lejbowicz, the company’s president, named at the same time. The tandem of entrepreneurs (she comes from Prestashop, he from Cosmian) has replaced for a year the historic Jean-Claude Ghinozzi, who himself succeeded Eric Léandri in 2020 with the difficult mission of avoiding bankruptcy. Because despite its greatness, Qwant has never weighed much in Internet searches: its market share does not even reach 1%, where Google exceeds 91% in France. The company has never been profitable and has sparked controversy over the reality of advancing its Internet indexing technology, as well as management crises.

Now, no more designer appliances and furniture: Qwant discreetly occupies a single floor in an office building located near the boulevards Grands, in the center of Paris. About 40 people work there, compared to about thirty in Nice, about ten in Rouen, and about twenty scattered throughout who work remotely. The stylistic divide with Léandri’s era is profound. And it’s supposed to. ” Qwant won’t take down Googleopening piece Corinne Lejbowicz. It is simply a quality alternative search engine that guarantees privacy. It’s already a lot, there’s a real market for it and we want to make it as good as possible “, she adds, concerned about” keep my feet on the ground “.

Still a heavy reliance on Bing, Microsoft’s index

Without denying the past, the two leaders want to embody new values ​​for the company. Starting with humility and transparency in pictures. The old Qwant excelled in its ambiguity: the company kept its current usage vague, minimized its use of Bing — Microsoft’s search engine — and split into about ten legal structures, which allowed, according to management ri, to hide the extent of the losses. Rather, the new Qwant takes its status as ” Little Digital ETI », according to the words of Raphaël Auphan.

In 2021, Qwant recorded a turnover of 11.9 million euros and a net loss of 9.1 million euros. “ Revenues are increasing and losses are decreasing. The trajectory is satisfactory, we just need to accelerate “, says the general director. Indeed, turnover has doubled in two years: it was 5.8 million euros in 2019 (then 7 million euros in 2020). For their part, losses have decreased by 60% compared to 23.5 million euros in 2019 (12 million euros in 2020).

Usage has stagnated: as of 2021 and still today, the company claims 6 million monthly users worldwide, who perform about 200 million searches. In January 2020, Eric Léandri announced in an interview with the site Les Numériques 5 million users for the month of September 2019, and a usage ” which only grows “. But it is impossible to give credit to Léandri’s figures: in May 2018, this received 70 million unique visitors per month !

However, Qwant is trying to navigate a growth course. The fault, in part, is that search results are less relevant than Google’s, even if the company is working hard to improve them and claims a 90% satisfaction rate. Another problem: his historic position on sovereignty and anti-Google. But Qwant depends heavily on Bing, Microsoft’s index, because its index is not yet adapted to display relevant results for all queries. The fact that he hid this addiction at first, then downplayed it for obvious sustainability reasons, is not in his favor.

This dependency is still a reality: Bing still answers 60% of queries asked on Qwant. After all, Bing Ads, Microsoft’s online search advertising network, is the source of more than 90% of the company’s revenue through contextual advertising. This is displayed on the screen according to the search present and not according to the profile of the Internet user, informed thanks to cookies and other trackers that are numerous on the Internet. ” We always have the ambition to rely 100% on our index and to constantly improve the results, but today we cannot do without Bing because it is a very long and expensive job. “, agrees Raphaël Auphan.

The Qwant brand almost disappeared

Another image problem: the shameful shadow of China’s Huawei, subject to its own country’s data-grab, hangs over Qwant. In 2021, the company, at the time in a liquidity crisis, accepted an 8 million euro bailout from the Chinese digital giant, in the form of convertible bonds. ” It is only a loan, Huawei has not entered the capital of Qwant “, deletes the general director. In financial difficulties, the company already had to be recapitalized at the beginning of 2020 by its historical investor, Caisse des dépôts and the German group Axel Springer, when Eric Léandri was sidelined for good.

These obstacles are such a burden that the main tandem has ” ask the question to replace the Qwant brand with a new name. The advantage: breaking with brimstone the excesses of the past. Downside: starting from scratch, while the brand is well-known. According to a study commissioned by the company and carried out in the fall of 2022, 50% of Ile-de-France residents know Qwant. ” Qwant remains a strong and valued brand because our users love the product. Our challenge is to grow, but Qwant has never been more important at a time when society is becoming aware of the importance of personal data. We can build on these achievements if we are clear about who we are “says Raphaël Auphan.

Consequently, the main break of the new team compared to Eric Léandri and then Jean-Claude Ghinozzi, is his desire to stop positioning Qwant as a sovereign tool. The previous CEO said in January 2020: it it’s always about being this sovereign alternative to Google “. Change of mood today: “Lthat discourse of Google sovereignty and replacement is over! “, assures Corinne Lejbowicz, who campaigns for ” simplicity and clarity “.

Our positioning is respect for privacy, period. Our promise is autonomy while browsing the Internet. This is not incompatible with using Bing, as neither we nor Microsoft have access to search data, including advertising. Part of our work in 2022 is to re-brand, be very clear about what we do and what we don’t, make Qwant more dynamic and friendly through messages like “we don’t know who you are and we don’t” . I do not care” “, the leader details, referring to a communication campaign in the Paris metro in recent months.

Building a “Privacy Ecosystem”

Therefore it was necessary to do a great cleaning. Qwant Pay (payment system), Qwant Med & Surgery (health services including augmented reality for surgeons), Qwant Mail (email), thematic search engines Qwant Music, Qwant Sports and Qwant Games, Qwant Civil Security program (system information developed with the State)… have all been deleted. ” There had been many distributions “, the president of the company chastely evacuates. Only the children’s search engine Qwant Junior – ad-free and protecting against violent and sexual content – and Qwant Maps (alternative to Google Maps) have been preserved.

But Qwant hasn’t given up on its ambition to make its search engine the cornerstone of an ecosystem around privacy. Quite the opposite. ” We want to build an ecosystem of online services that respect privacy. Because after you search on Qwant, you go to a site that uses cookies, so the path is incomplete “, explains Raphaël Auphan.

So last June, Qwant launched QwantVIPricacy, an add-on that can be added to any web browser and allows blocking of cookies and other ad trackers on websites, for truly secure browsing. In November, the device was extended for the first time to Safari, Apple’s browser (22% of the French market). The idea: to teach Internet users to opt out of tracking, in hopes of persuading them to then switch directly to Qwant for their online searches. Especially since the search engine can now be selected as the default on iPhone, iPad and Android.

What will be the next steps? ” We are capturing market share and revenue, everything has to come in its own time “, say the two leaders. But this ecosystem around privacy can be extended to other features such as a VPN – virtual private network that prevents a device from connecting to its real IP address and therefore being located -, among others. Nine years after its start, Qwant hopes, despite the difficulties, it is only at the beginning of a new life.