Alternatives to the Google Colossus

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

It’s not just the Ukraine that is currently at the EU’s center of attention as officials return to Brussels from their summer breaks (and heads of state cross their paths returning home from there after an unprecedented August European Council summit). There is also a burning pan-European question on the business side, and that is what to do about Google. The issue is front page news on today’s NYT website, which gives a good overview of a surprising widespread “European backlash” against the company (together with a charming picture of the Google StreetView camera in a boat, doing its thing while sailing through one of Amsterdam’s canals).

Perhaps the key figure in that NYT report is that Google’s market-share for search is “close to 90 percent in Europe, excluding Russia” while even in its native USA it is only about 67%. This search omnipresence is the wellspring out of which Google’s on-line dominance originally flowed, and perhaps it’s fair to say that, in view of that 90% figure, Europeans to a great extent brought these problems upon themselves. I mean, it’s been so convenient, it’s right there in the browser – often aided by deals it has struck (e.g. with Firefox) to be default search-engine – and the results are fast and usually useful. Sadly, this 90% figure continues to apply even after last year’s Snowden revelations showed how Google – wittingly or unwittingly – makes up an important part of the ICT infrastructure enabling the US Government to spy on its own citizens and on the rest of the world to an incredible level of intimate detail.

It’s clear that some search-engine diversity is now called for if European authorities are ever going to be able to face down the Internet behemoth convincingly, and Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung is willing to be our guide to the alternate search-engine wilderness.
The lead to Julia Löffelholz’s article behind the tweet reads

Google and Co. earn billions – with the data of their users as well. Smaller search-engines are trying to establish themselves on the market by doing the exact opposite: They spend their takings or promise anonymous search.

Which are these smaller search-engines?

  • DuckDuckGo: First, consider the duck: the duck you see there at the bottom of the tweet, with the spiffy bow-tie. That’s the mascot of the alternate search-engine DuckDuckGo that, numbers-wise at least, seems to be making the greatest headway into the search space. It was established back in September 2008, and now handles 5 million search-requests per day (Google: 3.5 billion). It’s motto is “The search engine that doesn’t track you,” and it apparently has a feature enabling you to filter out commercial search-results, i.e. those trying to sell you something. Now, it is also based in the US and so within the NSA’s ambit, which might quite reasonably worry some – but as founder Gabriel Weinburg points out in this piece, it stores no user information, so there is no information for the American authorities to subpoena. FWIW it is certainly the favorite search-engine here at EuroSavant; occasions when I have been dissatisfied with the search-results it has returned have been few and far-between. And it doesn’t track me.
  • Ixquick: This alternate search-engine is based in the Netherlands, and handles an even-smaller load of search requests per day. Ixquick does offer the unique feature of enabling its users to go on to visit a page they has found via its search-engine anonymously, i.e. to the visited page it will look as if Ixquick itself is visiting it rather than the actual users. Like DuckDuckGo, Ixquick makes money by running ads along with its search-results – ads which, logically, cannot be too specifically connected to one’s actual interests because nothing is ever known about the user other than the search he is running at the time.
  • Qwant: This one is based in France. The unique thing about Qwant is the way it sorts its results in various columns, labeled “Web,” “News” and “Social.” It can be quite a valuable way to break down in an orderly fashion the search-results it returns; you should go there to try this out at least once.

Then there are the further alternate search-engines discussed in this piece that try to harness search to further the interests of some good cause. There’s Ecosia, “the search engine that devotes 80% of its income to a tree planting program in Brazil” (and economizes further by cutting back on its use of hyphens); or Benefind, that enables you to contribute to a charity of your choice from your search-requests (note: Benefind is in German); or Goodsearch, which basically does the same thing but is based in the US and is in English.

All admirable initiatives, surely. But here a crucial question must be posed: These are surely supposed to be Internet tools in the first place – can they be charitable vehicles at the same time without that somehow impinging on their effectiveness as tools? I doubt that; and surely, in line with the issues raised today in that NYT article, the focus needs to be on developing a search-engine whose effectiveness at least can rival that of Google, while not carrying with it the objectionable baggage the latter has accumulated over the years.

Again, the best candidate (i.e. as endorsed by user-numbers within the alternative search-engine world) would seem to be DuckDuckGo. Do try to find a time to have a quack at it.

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