Search Alternatives To Google | Making Searches Private
A 4 Minute Read
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If you've ever wondered why strangely customized advertisements appear on the side of a website, it's because of the information that Google has collected about you. DuckDuckGo explains this well on their “Don't Track Us” page that shows users how the terms they search are stored, and then used to sell them things in return. The example they use is someone looking up 'herpes' on Google and then subsequently being fed advertisements on herpes medications. It's worth taking a look at the page, as it also goes into how those search terms can be stored, sold (including to insurance companies), requested by government officials, and eventually used against you.
This leads us to an important question: how do we search online without encountering these problems? Thankfully, there exists a handful of search engines which allow you to operate without being tracked. The three that we're going to look at today are DuckDuckGo, Startpage, and Disconnect Search.
DuckDuckGo is a popular search engine which claims that it doesn't track or sell any user information. None. With privacy in mind, DuckDuckGo offers what I find to be adequate results for most of my searches. It also has a few fantastic features which go a long ways towards improving the overall user experience. The first is the sidebar on the right-hand side of the page which allows you to search using specific websites. For example, when looking up the word “beer”, DuckDuckGo allows me to quickly use the integrated search function within popular related sites (in this case Wikipedia, BeerAdvocate, and a handful of others) to get results only from a specific source. This means that instead of looking at a list of a couple of links from BeerAdvocate and sixty pages of other results, it instead allows me to just search for results from BeerAdvocate. This doesn't sound like much but it can be handy for things like song lyrics, movie reviews, and Wikipedia articles.
The second feature that DuckDuckGo offers is their system of "!Bang" commands. Essentially what this means is that if the user finds that their results are inadequate, they can add a quick “!g” in their search terms. This leads DuckDuckGo to redirect them to results from Google. Other commands in their “!Bang” system include !gi (Google images), and !s (Startpage). A full description of the “!Bang” system can be found here.
The last great aspect of DuckDuckGo is the way in which it displays a quick summary of the term you are searching as the first result. For example, when again searching for “beer”, it displays a quick list of different definitions of the term, including “an alcoholic beverage”, a “coastal town in Devon, England, and interestingly “a Martian crater”. Of course this is not groundbreaking by any means, but it's a small addition to the user interface which just makes things a bit easier for those quick-and-dirty searches.
Note: DuckDuckGo also has a Tor hidden service at http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/
StartPage also offers a venerable set of features. While this doesn't include the “!Bang” system, arguably it doesn't need it. This is because it automatically gets results through Google rather than its own index. Additionally, StartPage also has a video and image search feature, which is lacking in DuckDuckGo (Update: DDG now has this as well). If you find yourself spamming the “!g” in DuckDuckGo a lot, you may have good reason to switch over to StartPage.
Finally, we have Disconnect Search. This is my personal favourite. Disconnect Search is basically a proxy to either Google, Yahoo, Bing, or DuckDuckGo. At the main search page you can select the search engine you want to use and Disconnect will fetch results from it. For example, if you select Google you'll get the exact same results that Google would have given you for a given set of search terms. It will also provide image, video, and news results as if you were using Google directly.
Another useful feature is the ability to select a region to search from. If you're in Canada, for instance, you can set your search to appear as if its coming from Canada so that you get geographically appropriate results. All of this happens privately, as Disconnect proxies users' searches to the search engines without tracking who is actually making the searches.
All of these search engines are quite useful. While I personally prefer Disconnect Search, it does rely on Google by design. Startpage suffers this problem as well. So if you're ideologically set against Google then DuckDuckGo is your best choice. In any case, moving away from using Google directly will be a major benefit for your online privacy.