There are some things we keep doing, even when we know they're bad for us. We all know we shouldn't eat a lot of fast food or live lazy, couch-ridden lives; we all know how bad smoking is, and how miserable we feel the next day when we stay up all night...and yet, we still succumb to those bad habits we just can't resist.
This also applies to our security health. We know how famous search engines like Google and Yahoo compromise our online privacy by tracking our searches, preferences and online activity, but we tend to use them for that very reason. We'll bristle at their invasion of privacy, but we love their convenience, and their accurate search results.
Just as we should rethink that late night drive to McDonalds, we should also rethink our online behaviour and how much of our privacy and information is compromised by going the easiest route, such as when we use Google or Bing.
This is why private search engines are a great option for anyone concerned about online privacy and having their behaviour tracked. So let's take a look at what information the big search engines track, how to maintain your privacy, and a list of some of the best private search engines available.
- Why use a private search engine
- How to find the best private search engines
- The top 5 private search engines
Why use a private search engine
There's been a boom in the use of private search engines during the past few years, with their promise of the mainstream engine experience without compromising on data privacy. But the more popular search engines have become a comfort zone for many, some of them having become the standard for years now, joining the mainstream, and many of them employing personalized search results.
Edward Snowden's NSA revelations about privacy were a call to action for many to turn to private search engines, something more informed, tech-savvy users have been doing for years. But there are other reasons private search engines are attractive. For instance, not-so-subtle ads placed aggressively over a web page are a turn-off, and don't do a lot for user experience.
And what data do mainstream search engines store?
- IP addresses
- Search terms
- Cookie-based identifiers
- User agent
All this data is used to create your user profile, which can then be shared with third parties that in turn serve you customized ads. Truly private search engines don't track you, and there are no intrusive ads that show you exactly the thing you were just talking about. The ads won't be tied to your previous searches as private search engines don't store your search queries or history. It's no wonder that more and more people are protecting their privacy and avoiding the "filter bubble".
The filter bubble describes the concept where a user will, while online, get personalized search results that provide results based on past online behaviour, displaying certain topics from a specific standpoint that keeps the user in a sort of intellectual isolation. The calculated information the user gets is based on all the data search engines collect: location, search history, and online click behaviour.
How to find the best private search engines
There are a lot of private search engines out there. Each has its own features and user experience, and each accommodates different needs. You can find some that provide a Google-like experience, some that focus all of their resources into providing maximum privacy, and some that are dedicated to being family-friendly.
There are also those that offer options to customize your search results, if you're not ready to abandon getting personalized news on your home page. By default, private search engines shouldn't track any of your data, and yet some continue to use your information; it's always best to study privacy policies carefully.
Private search engines deliver neutral and objective search results that don't conform to biases from your learned online behaviour. And to keep the searching experience convenient, it's wise to look for ones with an easy-to-use interface. There are even a few private search engines that put real effort into replicating Google, to make for an easy transition.
We also notice that there are two "types" of search engines. Some are actual search engines with crawlers that crawl the internet to deliver information, and don't interact directly with Google and similar search engines. This type of private search engine is the best for your privacy, but might not get you the most relevant search results.
The other type of private search engine is the metasearch engine. This type interacts directly with big search engines and combines the pulled information, to yield results that give you a better search experience in terms of relevance. Metasearch engines may raise a few privacy flags as they interact with Google and the like, but most of them allow you to anonymize your queries, discouraging Google from tracking you.
The top 5 private search engines
As we've seen, the many different private search engines out there offer many different incentives, so it's important to find one that will suit your own unique needs. You'll want to find the right balance of maintaining your privacy while getting the best search experience possible, along with the appropriate search results.
We've compiled a list of the five best private search engines available, in no particular order. Each one has its own advantages and drawbacks, so here's a chance to look at their abilities and restrictions, to help you choose the one that's right for you.
Duck, duck, duck...goose!
DuckDuckGo, or DDG, is perhaps the best-known private search engine out there. Whether because of its catchy name or its promise of total anonymity, DDG receives an average of 40 million queries daily. With 400 sources including Bing, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Yandex and their own web crawler, DuckDuckBot, this search engine is very popular with those concerned about privacy, and has grown in use exponentially following Snowden's startling revelations.
DuckDuckGo's interface is very similar to Google's and those of other popular search engines; it was even in the default search engine list in Chrome 73. The search results displayed are relevant for many different searches we tested. It did show response to local search results, which leads us to conclude that it uses your IP address. But does it store it? According to DDG, they are a privacy-oriented search engine that doesn't store IP addresses and user information.
SearX is a metasearch engine that pulls results from popular search engines as well as 70 others, and combines them. They're dedicated to user privacy, so IP addresses and other information are not shared with the search engines from which it pulls the results. Instead, Google and the like receive your search phrase as an anonymous request. In addition, cookies are not set by default and you can also download it as a Firefox extension.
SearX is open-source and available at GitHub. They emphasize downloading the code and contributing to them to ensure maximum privacy. And because it's open-source this also means no ads! You can also use a number of different public instances SearX provides, but that means you're putting your privacy in the hands of the administrators of that instance, so it's always better to stick with the main website or to use your own instance.
As of recently, Google has started to block some instances from querying it, which means that those instances will not use Google and won't provide you with Google's results. This could be an inconvenience to those who search specifically, or mostly, for Google results, so other private search engines might offer better options.
When looking for 100% anonymity, look no further than Swisscows. This Switzerland-based private search engine is also one of the more popular ones. With Swisscows there are no tracking profiles, no user identifiers, no data collection of any kind and no ads. When using this private search engine, neither is your IP address stored nor your online behaviour tracked. In fact, the only information Swisscows does store is the number of daily search requests.
To further their promise of your guaranteed privacy, they have a data center in the Swiss Alps and their own servers, so they're not affiliated with third party services for this purpose. Swisscows are partnered with Bing as their primary source so you can expect most of your results from there.
A few things really make Swisscows unique. Firstly, they are based on semantic data recognition; they use machine learning to provide the fastest results that are strictly subject-related based on the context of the search. Another unique feature this private search engine provides is that it filters out explicit results, becoming a favorite for those who are looking for a family-friendly online experience.
This may be a minus for some, so if you're not looking for something PG-13, then Swisscows might not be for you. If that's not a concern, Swisscows is a great way to go.
MetaGer first became popular in Germany, where it originated, but has since won users all over the world. It queries around 50 other search engines, but it does have its own crawlers; just as SearX, it sends anonymous requests to them to ensure user privacy. Another similarity with SearX is that it's also open-source so you're able to make modifications.
Notable sources MetaGer queries are Bing, Yahoo and Yandex, with Bing appearing to be the primary source. The interface falls a bit short compared to others, and it doesn't offer outstanding search results, but it works well and the results displayed are relevant.
For an added layer of privacy, this private search engine integrates a proxy server to hide the IP addresses, so websites you access can't track you. This is what MetaGer calls their "open anonymously" feature.
Coming from France, Qwant is a private search engine that claims to never collect any of your data or search history. Here as well, your search query is dissociated from your IP address and, being based in Europe, its data privacy requirements are more strict than those in the US.
Qwant is a metasearch engine that offers direct research with many websites, its primary source being Bing. It has an aesthetically pleasing interface and you can set preferences to customize your homepage. It features Qwant Maps and a Junior version for children aged 6-13.
Like others on the list, this private search engine is free, but it does offer a paid version requiring you to sign up with your name and email address to show you customized results. But, don't let this discourage you from trying Qwant. They do collect search queries, but they can't be used as identifiers. With the paid version, as they are affiliated with eBay and Trip Advisor, you might get these sites as first results.
There are extensions for both Firefox and Chrome, as well as apps for Android and iOS. Qwant is a solid private search engine, and it's worth a try.
While it may once have been unthinkable for Google to lose its power on the search engine market, the concept of cybersecurity culture and people's perception of, and concern with, their privacy has noticeably shifted. More and more users are turning to private search engines to maintain peace of mind, and to worry less about who is tracking them and the information that may otherwise be stored, waiting to be exposed in a data breach. Whatever the driving factor for turning to private search engines, it's a good step toward maintaining our security health and digital hygiene.
And just as you're making your New Year's resolution to drink two litres of water a day, add "switching to a private search engine" to that list as well!