When you use a search engine like Google, you don’t expect it to be collecting information about you. But that’s exactly what happens with every query and every search. Among other things, this data collection leads to the “I bought one lava lamp, and now I’m drowning in lava lamp ads” cases. But search engines that don’t track you are out there – and we’re reviewing some of the best.
What is a private search engine?
A private search engine is one that doesn’t track you. They’re expected to have the following features:
- Don’t track user data;
- Don’t store your IP address;
- Don’t store your search history;
- Don’t sell your data to marketers;
- Don’t offer targeted advertising;
- Anonymize your data (as some information has to be stored for various functionality purposes);
- Disclose funding sources.
Anything beyond that is a benefit, though the most common ones are:
- Map functionality;
- Google-like search results page;
- Browser plug-ins;
- Dedicated apps;
- Ways to make it the default search engine.
And now let’s get into our list of the best search engines that won’t leave you feeling watched.
Top search engines that don’t track you
DuckDuckGo isn’t as old as its three-word name would imply (looking at you, GoDaddy), only having existed since 2008. But as far as privacy goes, DuckDuckGo is safe to use and it’s one of the biggest search engines out there, reaching 100 million DAILY search queries in 2021. It collects information from around 400 sources (such as Bing) as well as from its own crawler.
DuckDuckGo is monetized in two ways: via Microsoft Advertising (while still keeping your data safe) and affiliate contracts with eBay and Amazon. When I tested it, just searching for “cat” or “cats” wasn’t enough to bring up cat food ads. DuckDuckGo also has its own fun features like !Bangs, which immediately lead you to search results on other websites. For example, !w cats would take you straight to the Wikipedia page on cats.
Search results often miss obvious stuff
Lots of users
Still shows ads
Has a custom crawler
Good additional features
#2. Surfshark Search
Surfshark Search is a search engine… by Surfshark (that’s us – unless you’re somehow reading this post on some other blog, in which case I’m flattered they stole it). It’s a search engine built with privacy in mind, so it doesn’t collect any data about you and gives you natural search results.
The only teeny-tiny downside is that it only comes with a Surfshark One subscription (though we’re certain that it’s a good product to own). On the other hand, this means that Surfshark Search doesn’t have to be funded through third parties and shows no ads or affiliate links. Ever.
No ads whatsoever
Bit lacking in extra features
Developed by a cybersecurity company
Startpage traces its roots back to 2006 (or even 1998 if Wikipedia is to be believed), which is fairly old as far as search engines are concerned. It’s headquartered in the Netherlands (just like one other company whose blog you may be reading right now), and thus operates under stringent Dutch and EU privacy laws.
Their other selling point is Google. Unlike many alternative search engines, Startpage uses Google’s search engine while at the same time anonymizing the search request. That’s why your search experience will be familiar to Google, including ads. But those are contextual (rather than targeted) ads – this is how Startpage funds its business.
Uses anonymized Google results
Still shows ads
Beholden to EU privacy laws
Carbon offsets – kind of whack. However, Ecosia isn’t in the business of pretending to care about the environment by maybe planting a tree now and then. It’s a private search engine that donates 80% of its profits to tree-planting programs.
Ecosia claims that it has planted over 140 million trees at this point – impressive for a search engine funded entirely by ad partnerships. According to the project, a single search brings in, on average, half a Euro cent. For added transparency, Ecosia hosts a load of reports and data on how their tree-planting efforts are going on their site.
On the less exciting end, Ecosia draws search results from Microsoft Bing (also their ad partner) enhanced with its own algorithm.
Look at all of them trees
Still gives you ads
Still Bing results, kinda
Bing results improved by own algorithm
Qwant was launched in France in 2013. It is set apart from other search engines that don’t track you by having its own indexing. This means that it stores and categorizes data in its own way and doesn’t, say, rely on Bing to do it. So if you’re unhappy with the search results that Bing brings up, Qwant will be an improved experience.
Quant, like many others, is financed via ad deals with Tripadvisor, eBay, and others. It also offers Maps (based on the OpenStreetMap project) and Junior, a search engine version calibrated for 6-12-year-olds.
Has its own indexing
Financed by ads
Offers features like kid-friendly search
Some project information only available in French
Launched in 2009, Gibiru is certainly a privacy search engine – very little is known about it otherwise. It uses Google search results (hence you may see the 30 trillion pages indexed number), but with a twist!
You can choose to see “censored” results for your searches, meaning it’s stuff that Google chooses not to show you. Other than that, it’s funded by commissions (when users buy something or place a call to action), offers its own VPN (Virtual Private Network) service, and has Android and iOS apps.
Builds on Google search results
Little is known about the project
Searx is a bit different from other search engines here. It’s openly a metasearch engine, gathering results from 83 other sources (including Qwant and Startpage). Secondly, it was made by massive privacy nerds and, as such, there’s no central Searx page: anyone can run a public instance. And the instances are a necessity since Google has started blocking some of them.
You can set some preferences for the search engines, which will be stored on a cookie on your device rather than anywhere else. You can also use specific commands that allow you to draw results from a single specific engine rather than all of them.
Collates results from many sources
Independent public instances are of variable quality
No central hub that could be taken down
You can run your own public instance
Swisscows resides in Switzerland, with a server-based in Mount10 AG secure bunker (seriously, that’s what their marketing material says). They claim that their searches are faster thanks to their company’s semantic indexing system. Like most entries on this list, it’s financed by Bing ads.
Another thing Swisscows prides itself on is being a family-friendly search engine, immediately omitting any sexually explicit content. The rest is the usual fare: no user profiles, data anonymization within a week, no transfer to third parties, and so on.
Semantic indexing for speed gains
You may want those family-unfriendly results
MetaGer is positively ancient, having been launched in 1996. A cooperation between a German organization promoting media literacy and the University of Hannover, it’s a metasearch engine with a view to transparency and privacy. Also, its infrastructure is powered by solar- and hydropower.
The source code of MetaGer is freely available for anyone to root around in. They’re also fairly open about how their system ranks pages for search results, including how they remove pages they’re legally obliged to or ones that look badly made or provide blatant misinformation.
They admit to removing results, which is a balancing act
Source code is available to inspection
Get the private search engine that’s right for you
While Google dominates the search engine scene to an absurd degree, you don’t have to submit to its Orwellian nightmare. As this list shows, alternative search engines exist, and they can help you browse without drowning you in annoying targeted ads or hoovering up your data for sale. And now that you’ve read up on it, you can make an informed choice.
Is there a search engine that does not track you?
Yes, there are multiple private search engines that do not track you, like DuckDuckGo, Surfshark Search, and Startpage.
What search engine is the most private?
Nobody really knows, especially when “most private” is a fairly nebulous term when it comes to search engines and determining just how much user data they need to operate.
For now, any search engine on our list is good.
How can I search and not be tracked?
Here’s how you search without being tracked:
- Use a private search engine.
- Use a VPN.
- Use your browser in Incognito mode.
What is the downside of DuckDuckGo?
As someone who uses DuckDuckGo on his phone, I can say that search results do sometimes miss the obvious answers that Google would provide.
But that’s the tradeoff: you trade convenience for privacy.
Is DuckDuckGo owned by Google/Amazon/China?
No, DuckDuckGo is owned by Duck Duck Go Inc., an American company.