Searching the web shouldn’t cost you your privacy. Yet for the longest time, online search has involved targeted advertising, online activity tracking and the sale of user data to the highest bidder. Turns out there are plenty of search engines that not only protect your data, but also contribute to social and environmental initiatives. Isn’t that what we’ve been searching for all along?
‘I Googled it.’
Ever found yourself uttering that phrase? For many of us, subconsciously using the well-known brand name in place of the more neutral term ‘web search’ has become commonplace, a fact that the search giant would probably love to remain the norm. After all, it’s free advertising for them and speaks to the continuing success of Google’s ad business. Since coming to market in the 90s, the company’s influence has continued to grow, and it currently sits as the dominant and unrivaled go-to for online search, serving more than 8/10 searches across desktop and mobile. This near monopoly is concerning for several reasons and raises valid questions around marketplace competition, the stifling of innovation and how businesses and users are coerced into playing ball, or risk being downranked or losing access to some of their favourite online services. There are also concerns around privacy and ethics, including whether a single company has the right to track your presence and online activity across the web through targeted advertising that relies on behavioural tracking.
Is it right for one company to control the web?
Governments have begun to echo the lines of inquiry that the tech industry and privacy pundits have been raising for years now, namely, is it right for one company to control the web? Recently we’ve seen EU policy makers take aim at Alphabet’s (Google’s parent company) $100USD billion search and advertising business through antitrust claims, a US settlement to the tune of $85USD million over deceptive user tracking practices and even its own staff ridiculing the company’s misleading ‘incognito mode’ – designed to enable a private online experience when using Google’s Chrome browser. Turns out that nomenclature is rather misleading, as it still allows transmission of user data to third parties… resulting in yet another class action lawsuit.
Some of this should come as no surprise, after all, think about how much you interface with Google and Alphabet-related products and services. Ever gone a day without using Google, YouTube, Google Maps or Gmail? Tried running a business and not tweaking your Search Engine Optimisation strategy to favour Google results or Ad Words? When you browsed to this site, did you use Chrome? And underneath all of these technologies sits a giant advertising business that is powered on user data, helping the company pocket over $20USD billion in Q4 of 2021 alone.
But what if we told you that there was a better way to search the web? Because it turns out there are a plethora of search engines that not online deliver results on par with Google, but also feature social and environmental initiatives that can help to provide a positive impact on the world while you search?
Give Back While You Search
Bing was once a fledgling ‘decision engine’ that has matured into a very decent Google alternative and its underlying architecture now powers nearly 10% of desktop search, as well as providing results for several other providers, including Yahoo, Duck Duck Go and Ecosia. The company offers the ability to earn points when searching on desktop or mobile, and these can be traded in for retail vouchers or monetary donations to several charities and social service organisations, including UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and more. Users can also opt to enable a recurring donation that will automatically donate your accrued points to the nominated organisation of your choosing. Each time you meet the threshold, your balance is automatically converted into real world dollars and donated, all for free.
Ecosia is a Certified B Corporation that lets you plant trees just by searching the web. Each time you search, the ad revenue that the company collects goes toward planting trees. As of this writing, Ecosia has invested over $36EUR million from 20 million active users, resulting in over 160 million trees planted between 13,000 planting sites. The company is fully transparent about its environmental activities, releasing monthly financial reports and tree planting receipts to show where and how the money is invested. Ecosia is also committed to the privacy of its users, vowing to never sell data to advertisers and refrains from using third party trackers.
This focus on user privacy has been met with great reception and has seen usage explode to over 3 billion monthly searches.
DuckDuckGo is another search engine that is big on privacy. Founded in 2008, the company was one of the first to buck the trend of treating its users as data mines by refusing to store search history, use trackers or sell data to third parties. This focus on user privacy has been met with great reception and has seen usage explode to over 3 billion monthly searches, making it the fourth most popular search engine among desktop users, behind only Google, Bing and Yahoo. The search engine has also added a number of features to deliver a rich-user experience, including news, images, video, maps, shopping, local and contextual search.
This Is Just The Beginning
As recently as last decade there was really only one big player in search, but now the landscape for online search is beginning to heat up. More and more services are coming online, services that respect their users’ right to privacy, their communities and the planet that we share. Services like Swisscows and Neeva are redefining the relationship between search engine and consumer, putting user anonymity at the forefront and proving that there are viable business models for search that don’t include selling personal data to the highest bidder.
With consumers becoming more cognizant about the technologies they use and the impact they have on their privacy, governments beginning to push policies that protect the digital rights of its citizens and the rise of alternative services that are a force for good, we are experiencing a paradigm shift. One that puts people and the planet back into focus. Isn’t that what we’ve been searching for all along?
*This article is part of our ongoing #Techtober series, where we spotlight tech-related companies and services that provide a positive impact on our world.