Ever asked your partner to buy food for the cat and, soon after that, an add for savory tuna canned cat food popped in your web browser? You’re not paranoid if you have this feeling that the internet responds to you with ads for things you’ve looked into while you thought you were offline.
From previous web searches that you’ve forgotten about (only that Google didn’t) to the geolocation that quietly sits active on your phone and sees when you enter a shoe shop next to your house, technology is spying on you.
Sometimes it’s fun, other times it’s damn scary, especially if you’re clueless on why is all this happening. And we might explain to you, in detail, how things work. But it would probably take us an entire PhD thesis.
So, instead, we’re going to take baby steps and introduce you to one of the many things that make a difference in terms of privacy for the web users: the privacy of search engines.
For the benefit of users
[Insert sinister laugh here.]
Under this pretext, the most popular search engines currently on the market store loads of details about their users. We call it a pretext because, clearly, Google doesn’t need to know your hardware settings to provide you with customized search queries.
Just like it doesn’t need to know the gazillions of other details it stores about you, the devices you’re using, and the content you’re accessing.
Make no mistake, other search engines are just as bad when it comes to your security and privacy. Google is only the worst of them all, since the scope of its data collection is humongous.
Yahoo, Bing, AOL, Ask, Lycos, are simply trying to come from behind. And they all collect more data than they probably should.
What an innocent user like you should do, when trying to get rid of the prying eyes?
Learn a few things on the privacy search engines, of course. Do that and you’ll notice that the most secure search engines in terms of privacy may not return you the most custom-oriented search results.
But that’s ok because it’s precisely what you want, to stop feeling spied all the time, right? And only when you get that you can call it “for the benefit of users…”.
Safe search engines for privacy – what’s in it for you?
If you’ve never tested one of the dedicated privacy search engines out there, you might feel surprised the first time you do it. Sure, you are hoping for performances similar to Google, minus the privacy infringement. But that may just not be doable.
Because secure search engines either don’t store your data, to begin with, or they store some kind of data but they delete it as fast as possible, they don’t “know” you. At least they don’t know you as Google does.
In other words, they don’t have a user profile and they cannot narrow down the results they associate with your search queries. However, privacy search engines do check most of the tech features you’re expecting.
Even though the search results aren’t always what you dreamed of, it helps to know that they don’t record your IP address. Or that they give you the option to use a proxy service when accessing those search results.
At their core, the best search engines for privacy are search engines of their own or metasearch engines. The ones from the first category come up with their own search algorithms (which may constantly need to be honed), whereas the latter compiles results from different sources.
When you work with metasearch engines, the engine in cause will act as a go-between, querying other engines and compiling the results for you. By doing so, it gives you the power of a better engine, without disclosing your personal information.
For instance, StartPage queries Google and Swisscows (previously known as Hulbee) queries Bing. As it happens, you’ll find these two on pretty much any secure search engines list.
The pros of using secure search engines
Now that you know a thing or two about the engines willing to protect your privacy by not collecting unnecessary data, you probably want to know more. The following features are desirable and some of the best engines include them. Though you shouldn’t necessarily expect to find each one in every single engine you try out there. Here’s what you can hope for:
- The option to open the search results in a proxy window, therefore to view pages anonymously;
- Simplified search results by using specific meta data;
- Clearly categorized search results by web resources, news, social feeds, images for the selected topic;
- Search results filtering by selecting a country of origin;
- Fetched from the source results for specific questions that you type;
- No user profile generation;
- General, not user-targeted ads.
The trade-off you need to accept to protect your privacy
Just the same, when you must work with a different search algorithm than the one you’re used to, what you experience feels completely different. Expect for and know that it’s completely normal, since you’re not working with the giant Google anymore, to deal with:
- Slower loading speeds compared to other services you were used to;
- Sometimes less relevant results than the ones you were hoping for;
- Ads selected based on the topic you search for, not on you as an individual user;
- Errors rendered in the display of the search results, especially when using the proxy window;
- The lack of some basic functionalities, such as the option to filter images by license.
The best search engines for privacy
If it’s a search engine that collects user data and creates user profiles, its search results will be tailored to fit the user’s specific needs or interests. If it’s a search engine that values privacy, everything else falls second.
Even so, there are quite a few reliable, privacy-oriented search engines that can seriously compete with Google. Below, you’ll find the ones we’ve looked into, along with our thoughts on how they work and how you can benefit from using them.
Up until 2016, Ixquick and StartPage used to be two different search engines. If you search the web for privacy search engines, you’ll find them described separately in older articles on this topic. Ixquick used to be on the market since 1998 and had its own ranking algorithms in place, pulling data from multiple sources. Whereas Startpage, as mentioned, was using Google as the main source to retrieve search results for its queries.
Following their merge, users got the option of StartPage by Ixquick, self-proclaimed “the world’s most private search engine”. With its help, users can:
- Add it to Chrome as the default search engine;
- Type in search queries directly from its homepage;
- Use a dedicated filter for Image searches, from a menu at the top-right corner of the window;
- Choose the language for the search results as well as for the interface of the search engine;
- Receive search suggestions in full privacy – instead of displaying search results based on what other users are typing, it returns more general suggestions, based on dictionary words, common pages of the internet that are freely available online etc.
- Access geographical maps, Wikipedia Instant Answers and Other Instant Answers;
- Proxy safety suggestions, so that when users look at a web page through the proxy, they can check a safe search database and know if the unproxied version of that web page is suspected of having malware;
- Choose to connect to EU servers only, US servers only, or only the Closes/Fastest available servers;
- Benefit from additional privacy, with the POST (instead of GET) method – which means that whatever search terms you will use, they will remain out of the logs that the webmasters of the websites you access normally keep.
In a nutshell, StartPage promises a navigational experience with no personal data storage, anonymous views, and no filter bubble. The latter means that because they don’t store your personal data, they don’t know your preferences and they don’t make you suggestions that fit your profile. Instead, you get access to a significantly wider range of results for each search query, opening the room for diversity and new experiences.
Right behind the StartPage, the DuckDuckGo promises the same seamless experience without advertising trackers, a private search history, and full control of your personal data.
While it claims not to store your personal information ever, DuckDuckGo walks the extra mile and commits to not follow you around with ads and to not track your searches, regardless of whether you’re in private mode or not.
With the motto of “Privacy, simplified”, the team behind this particular search engine promotes a dedicated app and an extension that should offer privacy on every device you use to surf the web.
They even have the Privacy in Your Inbox feature, which is basically a privacy newsletter that users can subscribe to. And they have a couple of handy privacy device guides that are worth taking a look at.
This one truly stands out from the pack. And it only takes a glance to see what we mean. It’s not just the name, and not even their logo with the jiggly cow. This privacy safe web-search engine lets you pick regional search (set to United States (en) by default). And introduces you to a semantic map from the very beginning.
Right next to the search box at the top of the page, the 3-dot icon will drop down a small menu featuring a Translator tool and a new addition, the Digest tool. With the latter, the search engine will give you a summary of a source document.
The source can be a file that you upload, a text that you copy and paste, or an URL. Whereas the summary will magically get the essence of the source text. You can even choose how much of the source to be reproduced within the summary, as in 5, 15, 25, 35, 45 or 55% of the source.
With the common promise that all privacy search engines make – to not store your data – Swisscows brings something else to the table. Their search results rule out any sexual or pornographic content, making it a family-friendly search instrument.
As for the innovative search engine part, it’s all about their semantic map, the result of over 19 years of research in the field of information analysis. They call it a new kind of intelligent search. It takes all that analytical experience and translates it into easy-to-understand and easy-to-operate information where color and tile size are decisive. You’d have to test it to really see what they mean!
The list of the best search engines for privacy includes a couple of other interesting names such as Qwant, Privatelee, searX or Peekier. Each one might offer you an interesting angle and many of them are more alluring through the looks than through the actual working principles.
After all, security and privacy when surfing the web come from not letting the search engine know who you are. And that’s what these secure engines are trying to do. Of course, this also implies that you will have to give up on the personalized experience that the big names in the industry are currently offering you. The less an engine knows about you, the more simplified (and sometimes even less relevant) the search results would be.
Depending on what matters most to you, you will be able to make a call. Expect for the names we mentioned in this article to surprise you with their search results. And know that this means you’ve made the right choice in terms of privacy-friendly search engines.