The answer is: A lot.
If you go to https://adssettings.google.com/ it will show you everything Google knows about you. In addition to your age and gender, it might know that you are interested in recipes, that you go cycling, or that you prefer to watch science fiction & fantasy films.
You can opt out of ad personalization, but that does not opt you out of Google storing and analyzing your search history. While they don’t sell it, like Facebook, they use it to sell you. Oh, and they sell this to you as “making ads more useful.” This is great for businesses, not so great for you.
While Google has never had a major breach of search history (or if they have, they kept it quiet), it could happen in the future. One obvious answer is to stop using Google. Unfortunately, it really is the best search engine. It is just the least private. Bing, Microsoft’s alternative, also stores a lot of your data.
As Google is the best search engine, living without it may require using more than one search engine for different things. We looked at twelve different private search engines to see which ones were best in five different categories – movies, video search, tutorials, news and music. Let’s start with a quick overview.
TOP 12 Alternatives to Google Search
We have to start with DuckDuckGo, because it is by far the best known of the private search engines, and the oldest. When you go to their home page, they offer a popup to switch to DuckDuckGo. (Note that all of our screenshots are taken on a Mac using the Safari browser, with an adblocker running). The homepage contains only the DuckDuckGo logo and the search box.
searX is open source, meaning that the code can be seen and altered. It has a lot of privacy features that might be a little overwhelming. For example, for ultimate privacy, you can set up a private “instance” of searX on your own computer, that only you use. It also has the advantage of sourcing from other search engines. The primary public version at searx.me shows only the search box and a link to the source code and to donate to development.
Qwant looks a bit different. It shows a few “hot trends,” which does indicate searches are tracked, but presumably in an anonymous manner. Qwant offers a specialist music search associated with a music streaming service and Qwant Junior, a child safe search engine. Clicking over to Junior shows the same search page, but with news sources they think appeal to children.
MetaGer is run by SUMA-EV, the Association for Free Access to Knowledge. If the algorithm doesn’t fit, that’s because MetaGer is operated from Germany, and thus is under tighter EU privacy restrictions from the start. The source code is also open. Their home page shows a button to add a plugin to your website. They also have a maps function.
Startpage claims to be the world’s most private search engine. Their engine is actually sourced from Google (at a cost). They back up their privacy claims with an inbuilt anonymous mode, although they do not explain how this works.
Search Encrypt and Discrete Search
Search Encrypt talks about being the privacy based search engine, but one thing made us a little suspicious; they are ad supported. However, they encrypt your search terms and your search results disappear after thirty minutes. Discrete Search is the same site with a different URL and logo.
They source their results from Bing. Their homepage features a graphic of trending searches. They have image, video and music tabs, unlike the other search engines featured, and even have a translator. There is a button to make them your default search engine. You can search in a number of “regions” which can be manually changed, allowing you to search as if you were in another country without having to disconnect and reconnect a VPN.
This is another search engine that is really a proxy for other engines. You can choose between Bing, Yahoo (really?) and DuckDuckGo. It’s unclear what they offer over simply going to DuckDuckGo itself.
This one may have the most adorable logo. It’s a little owl with a magnifying glass. Like a couple of the others they claim to be the most private search engine. They do encrypt everything, yet somehow you need to decrypt data for it to be useful.
Gibiru recommended that we switch to Firefox, claiming it was the most private browser. They claim to be private and uncensored and also offer VPN service (be aware that free VPNs should be avoided). Their privacy explanation goes into detail about fear of government censorship and they claim to bring you more results from smaller sites.
Another very barebones homesite. Their about us link opens in another site, and is clearly aimed at business users who want their own private search engine.
Last, but not least, Oscobo has links to set them as default and also to download the Oscobo browser. They also offer encrypted search and promise not to use any third-party tools and to design their searches so they don’t show up in your browser history. They do have images, videos and maps tabs, but you have to click through to their “About us” to see them.
How Do Alternative Search Engines Compare?
First of all, we had issues with a couple of the search engines. When we tried Search Encrypt, it turned out to have a habit of randomly claiming your search term has expired and making you do it again. Disconnect Search redirected us to DuckDuckGo, regardless of which search engine we selected.
Category 1: News
The first search we did for comparison was “Washington DC News.”
Most of the sites fell short. They gave us a list of Washington DC news outlets, rather than showing news on the first page.
The exceptions were DuckDuckGo and Qwant, both of which gave recent headlines. Peekier shows previews of every website listed, so you can see headlines that way.
As you can see, DuckDuckGo gave us stories about Amazon and Medicare in Washington DC.
Qwant’s offerings had a peculiar sports orientation. Both had options to click through to get more headlines.
For reference, Google actually gave local headlines – about school closing and companies moving to the area. So, while DuckDuckGo was superior, the private search engines are definitely behind Google for quickly checking the news. This is one area where you have to balance security and convenience.
Category Two: Movies
The newest release at the time of writing was Alita: Battle Angel.
Google itself gives show times above reviews and then details of the movie on the right. None of the private engines gave the show time listing, but some did a better job of showing what you wanted than others.
The best was Search Encrypt, who’s top results were all torrent sites where you could download the movie. They apparently know their audience. Yippy showed an interesting top result, namely an interview with the director. DuckDuckGo and Startpage showed the movie description on the right, but it was just pulled from Wikipedia.
searX is the one which gets bonus points. It generated a sidebar, apparently from IMDB, that showed the genre, release date, distributor, etc for the film. This was cleaner than Google’s sidebar, but lacked the embedded trailer (given Youtube’s privacy policies, this is not a bad thing.
I would have preferred if they had included links to get tickets other than through Fandango, though. That was, though, the only link to get tickets prioritized by any of the private engines.
If you were looking for reviews, Peekier did a better job.
Category Three: Videos
Some of the private engines automatically lose out for not having a video tab. Specifically, Metager, Peekier (although it did include some videos in our Alita: Battle Angel search), Gibiru and Yippy lacked the convenient tab, although all would show videos if you added it as a search term. Metager did not seem to understand exactly what we wanted. DuckDuckGo and Qwant tied for the nicest interface, nicer than Google’s as they tiled the videos across the screen.
DuckDuckGo won out simply for having so many more videos on the screen – Qwant only had three across. All of them were relevant. SearchEncrypt had a similar setup, but served unblocked ads, including one for a shady streaming service. (It then put its list of pirate sites under the videos).
searX showed a nice list similar to Google, but was unable to recognize our region and served several videos in German. Startpage did a better job on the language and gave relevant results. Swisscows was similar. In other words, Metager was probably the worst, and DuckDuckGo the best, but any of the search engines with a video tab did a decent job. Peekier, unfortunately, does not do proper video or image search, but only shows a different set of website previews.
Category Four: Tutorials
A lot of us look up how to do stuff online. For this search, we chose to look for Excel tutorials. All of the search engines gave relevant and appropriate results with one exception. Search Encrypt gave us an entire page of… ads.
The bonus points went to DuckDuckGo for an interesting coding choice. It automatically switched the search to the Video tab.
It thus served Youtube videos at the top and then websites underneath. It felt a little strange to have it take that initiative, but it did make for better results. Metager and Startpage seemed less keen on the others on putting Microsoft’s tutorials near the top, which might show a bias in favor of smaller sites. Peekier’s preview system also showed well here, as it gave you the ability to look at what was in each tutorial before loading it. Gibiru and Startpage were also good for putting video tutorials at the top. I have to give the lead to DuckDuckGo, though, for being smart enough to switch search modes.
Category Five: Music
For this one, we did a specific artist search, choosing Ariana Grande, who’s been in the news a lot lately.
If you wanted to buy tickets, this was the one place where Search Encrypt did particularly well. Unfortunately, that was about all you got from Search Encrypt, and some of the results appeared to be from touts.
Otherwise, most of the engines did well. Metager was apparently the place to go for strange gossip about makeup and hair color. The rest appropriately put her own web site prominently.
However, this is where Qwant excelled – because of that music tab.
This is what you got if you switched to it. Click on “Discover Ariana Grande” and you get… everything. A brief bio, her full discography, recent news about her, her concert schedule, videos… everything. Because of Qwant’s specialist search, it has to take the lead on music searches. In fact, it is better than Google in this respect. Scroll down and you can go straight to Qobuz to listen to some music.
What this guide should make clear is that there is no one search engine that can replace Google. However, if you wish to reduce Google tracking your online activities, you should consider some of the alternative and more private search engines.
DuckDuckGo and Qwant come the closest, but for some things you may want to go elsewhere. Having three or four go-to search engines is the best thing we can do until solid competition for Google and Bing develops.
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