When we think of search engines, we tend to start and stop with Google, but they are not the only game in town. Ellie Burridge spent a week investigating some of the most interesting alternatives as part of our ‘Building a Trusted Web’ series.
If you’re reading this, you certainly don’t need me—or anyone—to tell you about Google. Chances are you already use it: unless you’re located in Russia or China, Google is the undisputed industry juggernaut. It boasts almost 90% of the search engine market share worldwide (as of 2020) and brings in more than the GDP of Ukraine in yearly revenue.
It’s also one of the most controversial companies of the Internet age.
Although its motto was once “Don’t be evil”, Google has come under increased scrutiny for its monopolistic chokehold on the Internet landscape. In 2020 alone, three antitrust lawsuits were filed against it in the US—one by the Department of Justice, another by the Attorneys General of thirty-five states. These cases, among other things, allege that Google makes deals with other big tech companies to stay on top, including one with Apple to keep Google as the default search engine across Apple products, as well as one with Facebook agreeing not to compete with one another. There is also the accusation that Google suppresses competitors within search results, and that its use of content from websites (such as Wikipedia) without compensation is unlawful.
Letitia James, the Attorney General of New York, put it this way: “[Google] has used its dominance to illegally squash competitors, monitor nearly every aspect of our digital lives, and profit to the tune of billions.”
As Google controls almost a third of all digital ad spending in the US, it would seem vital to ensure that its practices are ethical or—at the very least—legal. But Google has managed to skirt around the law for decades because the tech industry is so lacking in regulation.
Luckily, that has begun to change.
Europe and Australia have also made attempts to crack down on the tech giant in recent years. Europe imposed fines in 2017, 2018, and 2019, which critics have pointed out may have little effect on a company for whom millions of dollars amount to spare change. That said, the EU penalties have amounted to 8.25 billion euros (around $10 billion). The sanctions have caused Google to stop prioritising its on shopping service (Google Shopping) in search results, as well as stopping the company from forcing Android operating systems to automatically install the Google search function and Chrome browser (European users now have a choice of search engines and browsers). Recently, an investigation has been opened into Google’s plan to buy Fitbit.
In Australia in 2019, Google was taken to court for misleading users about its location data collection practices. A year later, the ACCC (Australian Competitor and Consumer Commission) again sued Google for tracking people’s online activity, both on its own search engine/sites and on ‘non-Google’ sites, all for the purposes of targeted advertising.
There have been more than a few incidents where, although legal action has not necessarily been taken, widespread protests have drawn attention to issues with Google. In 2018 they were brought to task for their mishandling of sexual harassment allegations; in 2019 there was scrutiny over their contract with US Customs and Border Protection, who were separating immigrant families at the border; and in 2020 a prominent Black researcher, Timnit Gebru, said that she had been fired for criticising the company’s diversity efforts.
Stacked on top of one another, the issues with Google make it difficult for consumers to place their trust in its service. And yet it’s also difficult to conceive of an alternative. After all, ‘to Google’ is now a verb in its own right; the search engine has not only colonised the Internet, but the way we talk about it.
If privacy is your primary concern, you might consider DuckDuckGo, which does not track or store users’ information. While this has a negative impact on the personalisation of their service (there is none) it can be helpful in restoring one’s confidence in being able to browse privately.
Or there’s StartPage, which claims to be “the world’s most private search engine”. They pay Google to use their search results, meaning that you can get an almost identical experience to using Google, only without the insidious targeted ads. Furthermore, StartPage has a feature called ‘Anonymous View’, meaning you can also visit search results with full privacy. However, at the end of the day this search engine is still a payday for Google.
Swisscows is a privacy-oriented search engine that also claims to be ‘family-friendly’—so if avoiding explicit results is a priority for you, it’s ideal.
And then there are the ‘issue’ search engines, for those who want to be charitable while surfing the web: giveWater (which seeks to provide clean water for those without access to it), ekoru (focused on raising funds to keep the oceans clean and marine life healthy), and Ecosia (reforestation/tree planting). Ecosia donates 80% or more of its profits to charity; ekoru gives 60%, and giveWater does not currently provide information about its monthly contributions (either on how much or on where the money’s going, unfortunately).
Ecosia is the best of the charitable search engines: it is clearly committed to its cause, and provides a ‘tree counter’ in the upper right corner which tells each user how many trees they’ve facilitated the planting of by using the search engine. Currently, it takes about 45 searches to plant a tree. They are transparent about where the money goes and the specific projects it funds (most prominently in Madagascar, Colombia and Ethiopia). As well as all this, Ecosia is committed to its users’ privacy—although it stores search terms, it anonymises the IP address associated with them. It’s about the most environmentally-friendly search engine there is, too. Its search results are powered by the carbon neutral Bing, and its web hosting is powered 50% renewably (with a commitment to becoming 100% renewable in the future).
giveWater, on the other hand, makes no promises about data security; as with its revenue and spending, the information simply isn’t available. That said, if providing clean water for those in need is more important to you than reforestation or cleaning the oceans, it’s a valid choice.
It’s hard to give up Google cold turkey: due to its industry dominance and its huge cashflow, it has the best functionality of any search engine. Besides, it can be difficult to cut ties with something you’re used to. In my case, I’ve found myself instinctually typing ‘Google’ into my address bar on more than a couple of occasions, especially for image searches, and my favourite comic book website doesn’t show up in the results from other search engines. But I have DuckDuckGo installed on my phone (which is a Google Pixel 3a, making the endeavour just slightly redundant), and I’ve made Ecosia the default on my laptop.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that Google is not acting in the best interests of its users, or its employees, or the world at large, and if left unchecked its damage will only get worse. So it’s worth switching out to a search engine you can rely on, even if you do end up crawling back to Google every now and again.
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