Search Engines like Google have made finding things on the internet exponentially easier — you can find pretty much anything from web pages, images, videos, software, and much more with just a click.
However, this convenience usually comes with a cost of privacy, as the search engine giants like Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex are basically data collection companies that make money by targeted ads.
Search Engines collect vast amounts of data including:
- IP address
- Location data
- Cookies that can uniquely identify you
- Search queries and your entire search history
- Device fingerprints like user agent, preferences, etc.
All of this personal data is retained by search engines for an extended period of time, and is used for personalizing search results, targeting advertising, and protection from scams and phishing attacks.
Search Engines can collect personal information like political & religious beliefs, medical history, employment status, financial information, and other private details even when you are not logged in to your account or when using a different IP address by using cookies, that can be linked back to you by device or browser fingerprint.
In this private search engine guide, I’ll be covering pretty much everything you need to know about having a better web experience using private search engines:
Table of Contents
- How to choose the best Private Search Engine
- Private Search Engines
- More Search Engines
- How to keep your Searches Private?
- Private Search Engines Summary
How to Choose Private Search Engines?
Search engines are the second gate-keepers to the internet — it’s a necessity to choose the one that respects your privacy and provide uncensored and unfiltered search results.
Finding the best private search engine can be tough, especially when there are lots of so called “private search engines” that claim they protect your privacy.
Here are a few things I look for while choosing a search engine, feel free to do your own research, and add your suggestions in comments below:
- Jurisdiction: Jurisdiction of a company affects its privacy and security practices, look for the companies from places that have robust privacy and security laws.
- Business Model: The sources of revenue of any company is an important factor. Look for the ones that don’t rely on personal data collection & monetization.
Private Search Engines
Alright, here are my recommendations for search engines that provide uncensored results while respecting your privacy online:
Searx is an open source, privacy-friendly and self-hostable metasearch engine. It works by aggregating results from other search engines while not storing any personal data.
Search results on Searx may not be as personalized as Google, but it doesn’t track or create a profile on you. You can host your own or choose from the list of Public instances to use.
Searx can be used on Tor, and is very customizable, you can modify exactly what you want to search for be it files, images, maps, etc. under the advanced settings’ menu.
A Note on Public Instances
Searx by default protects the privacy of its users regardless of public or private instance. Here are the three ways it removes private data:
1. removal of private data from requests going to search services
2. not forwarding anything from a third party services through search services (e.g. advertisement)
3. removal of private data from requests going to the result pagesSearx Privacy
However, there can be some serious concerns while using public instances, as Searx explains:
What are the consequences of using public instances?
If someone uses a public instance, he/she has to trust the administrator of that instance. This means that the user of the public instance does not know whether his/her requests are logged, aggregated and sent or sold to a third party.Searx Issues
The key is to only use those instances that are operated by people you can trust, there are lots of great public instances to choose from, or you can always host your own. They are public instances available for Tor.
- Jurisdiction: n/a — depends on public / private instance
- Business Model: n/a — depends on public / private instance
DuckDuckGo is a privacy-friendly “Search Engine that doesn’t track you”, and just like Searx, works by aggregating results from over 400 sources.
We don’t collect or share personal information.
DuckDuckGo earns revenue by serving ads from the Yahoo-Bing search alliance network and through affiliate relationships with Amazon and eBay, which they claim doing while respecting your privacy:
Similarly, we may add an affiliate code to some eCommerce sites (e.g. Amazon & eBay) that results in small commissions being paid back to DuckDuckGo when you make purchases at those sites. We do not use any third parties to do the code insertion, and we do not work with any sites that share personally identifiable information (e.g. name, address, etc.) via their affiliate programs.DuckDuckGo Business Model
However, I did find that DuckDuckGo is saving your search queries, which even if they do privately for service improvement, may be a concern for you:
We also save searches, but again, not in a personally identifiable way, as we do not store IP addresses or unique User agent strings. We use aggregate, non-personal search data to improve things like misspellings.DuckDuckGo Issues
There are lots of great features like Bangs — shortcuts that quickly take you to search results on other sites, and has good filtering options for Images, videos, maps, and news. DuckDuckGo also has privacy browser apps for Android, and iOS.
Overall, DuckDuckGo is probably the best privacy-respecting search engine that you can use out of the box, without worrying about setup, and public instances like Searx, and get somewhat better results like Google.
- Jurisdiction: United States of America
- Business Model: Advertising and Affiliates
Qwant is a privacy-respecting search engine based in France, with two key principles: Privacy and Neutrality, and is powered by Bing and own indexing algorithms.
It is based in France, so it has to comply with much stricter privacy protection laws of European Union as compared to that of US. Qwant protects its users freedoms and ensures that the digital ecosystem remains healthy by serving unbiased results:
To the maximum of its possibilities and the state of art, Qwant anonymizes the data it needs to collect to deliver its services.
It is now the default search engine on all French governments’ computers amid alleged concerns that Google insufficiently protects data privacy.
Qwant has a dedicated office for protection of your privacy, and a Data Protection Officer (DPO) that work closely to ensure that the relevant regulation regarding personal data is applied as strongly as it should.
It makes money by advertisements while respecting both your privacy and your search experience of Qwant:
Qwant is a free search engine open to anyone. Our main source of revenues comes from ads displayed on Qwant results page.
But we take pride of doing it while respecting both your privacy and your search experience of Qwant.
Qwant Business Model
Qwant does not track people, and this is never going to change.
All in all, Qwant is a great privacy-respecting search engine that isn’t US-based like DuckDuckGo, and is just as good when it comes to search results. It also works on Tor.
- Jurisdiction: France (Europe)
- Business Model: Advertising and Affiliates
Metager is an open source meta search engine based in Germany. It is a cooperation between the German NGO SUMA-EV — Association for Free Access to Knowledge and the University of Hanover.
It gets the search results from as many as 50 search engines which are filtered, compiled and sorted before being presented to the user. Metager has some really nifty features like the “source of search result”, “open anonymously”, and filtering options that lets you filter search results by safe search, date, and language.
Metager is based in Germany which also has great privacy laws, and complies with privacy protection laws of European Union:
One thing I found concerning is that Metager limits the number of search queries per Internet connection to “prevent service congestion”:
To protect our service from congestion, we need to limit the number of search queries per Internet connection. For this purpose alone, we store the full IP address and a timestamp for a maximum of 96 hours. If a noticeable number of searches are performed by an IP, this IP is temporarily stored in a revocation list (maximum 96 hours after the last search). Then the IP is deleted.Metager Issues
Metager is run by donations and membership fees as well as advertising:
In addition to donations and membership fees, we must finance our operation through non-personalized advertising on the results page. To receive this advertising, we give the first two blocks of the IP in connection with parts of the so-called user agent to our advertising partnersMetager Business Model
It sends the first two blocks of the IP address and your user-agent to its advertising partners to server you “non-personalizing ads” — I couldn’t find any documentation on who are these “advertising partners”.
Overall, Metager is another privacy-respecting search engine based in Europe, that is open source and run by a non-profit.
- Jurisdiction: Germany (Europe)
- Business Model: Donations, Membership fees, and Advertising
Mojeek is an independent search engine based in the UK, on a mission to build the world’s alternative search engine — a search engine that does what’s right, that values and respects your privacy, whilst providing its own unique and unbiased search results.
It is based in the United Kingdom, and is a true search engine with its own crawler, unlike other meta search engines listed above that use other search engines.
By default and unless specifically agreed to, Mojeek doesn’t place any cookies on your computer. If Mojeek does require to place a cookie your agreement will be requested, when setting personal preferences for example.
It is currently funded by a group of private investors, and there aren’t any ads right now, there may be different business models in the future, as explained here by CEO Marc Smith in a Reddit AMA:
Up to now we‘ve been funded by a group of private investors that believe in our values and vision. But we‘re at a stage where we need to step up if we want to be considered a true alternative. Whether that means taking further investment, including advertising on our results, or concentrating on other business models (e.g. charging for access to our API) is yet to be decided.Mojeek Business Model
The log data like country, time/date, page requested, referral data, and browser are not sold or distributed to any third party vendors., and is kept private for the sole purpose of storing historical traffic volumes and country demographics of their visitors.
All in all, Mojeek is a great privacy-respecting search engine that is independent of corporate monopolies like Google and Bing, and is based in UK. It also works on Tor.
- Jurisdiction: United Kingdom
- Business Model: Funded by private investors
StartPage.com was the most recommended private search engine on the planet, until it was found that they were acquired (partially?) by Privacy One Group, owned by the same parent company that now also owns Waterfox — System1, a US-based ad-tech company.
Many of the concerns regarding the relationship between Startpage and System1 were alleviated by May 2020 as explained in this blog post by privacytools.io.
Startpage.com doesn’t log or share your personal information.
There is an option to have anonymous view, they don’t collect IP address, or serve any cookies, and don’t record your search queries:
The only exception is for automated search requests (robots) that rapidly submit more queries to our servers than any normal human would. When our software detects potential abuse, we register and block the offending IP address in order to keep our service safe and free.
Startpage.com uses just one “good” cookie called “preferences” in order to remember the search preferences you choose. It’s completely anonymous and expires after not visiting Startpage.com for 90 days.Startpage on IP address and Cookies
Startpage makes money by advertisements that are anonymously generated solely based on the search term you entered:
Like many other websites and Internet services, Startpage.com generates its income from advertising. When you perform a Startpage.com search, you may see up to three sponsored search results at the top of the results page. These ads are labelled accordingly. Clicking a sponsored link will take you off the Startpage.com website to an advertiser’s website.Startpage Business Model
Overall, Startpage seems like a superb search engine that respects your privacy and gets you search results directly from Google. However, the fact that, they are owned (partially?) by an ad-tech company and how they managed the whole scenario without transparency from the beginning has somewhat eroded my trust.
- Jurisdiction: Netherlands (and US)
- Business Model: Advertising
YaCy is an open-source, peer-to-peer search engine powered by its users, is a web search by the people, for the people: decentralized, all users are equal, no central, no search request storage, shared index.
It is a fascinating concept, here’s how YaCy works, according to Wikipedia:
- YaCy is a complete search application with user interface, index, administration and monitoring.
- YaCy harvests web pages with a web crawler. Documents are then parsed, indexed and the search index is stored locally. If your peer is part a peer network, then your local search index is also merged into the shared index for that network.
- A search is started then the local index contributes together with a global search index from peers in the YaCy search network.
YaCy is entirely open source and works on your own computer, there are no centralized servers — it runs on each user’s computer, where search terms are hashed before they being sent to the network.
Everyone can create their individual search indexes and rankings, and a truly customized search portal, and each YaCy user is either part of a large search network.
YaCy can be easily installed on Windows, macOS, and Linux, it is a fascinating search engine that is privacy-respecting, decentralized, open source, and is independent of corporate monopoly of Google and Bing.
- Jurisdiction: n/a
- Business Model: n/a
More Search Engines
Alright, I’ve already discussed the best private search engines above with different features and protections. However, there are some great search engines that aren’t that much privacy-oriented per se, but are great alternatives to Google, Bing, or Yahoo.
Ecosia: Plant Trees
Ecosia is “the search engine that plants trees”, is based in Berlin and donates 80% or more of its profits to nonprofit organizations that focus on reforestation.
It uses Bing, and is a certified B corporation. It is transparent about its financials, and publishes monthly financial reports that show exactly how much money they made from your searches, and what percentage of their revenue went towards trees.
On top of that, Ecosia is privacy-friendly as compared to Google or Bing but it isn’t that great — searches are encrypted, aren’t stored permanently, and data is not sold to third-party advertisers:
We don’t store your searches permanently
We don’t sell your data to advertisers
Your searches are encrypted
We don’t use external tracking tools
I like the option to turn off most of the tracking feature by activating “Do Not Track” in the browser’s settings:
We only collect a small amount of data to be able to improve our services. If you want to opt out of tracking, you can activate “Do Not Track” in your browser’s settings.Ecosia Do Not Track
Ecosia earns a few cents for every click on an ad from Bing — or a portion of the purchase price made through an affiliate link. Ecosia then gives the profits from this ad revenue to planting projects.
We also make a small income on commission from our online store.Ecosia Business Model
Overall, Ecosia is an awesome search engine that i personally use when i am not finding something specific, it has apps for both Android, and iOS.
- Jurisdiction: Germany (Europe)
- Business Model: Advertising and Affiliates
Swisscows as the name suggests is a search engine based in Switzerland with focus on privacy, and family-friendliness with explicit results entirely omitted.
Swisscows completely does away with statistics and analyses on its visitors in order to protect your privacy. Given that we do not collect any information on our visitors, we are also not able to identify your place of residence. Swisscows does not conduct any geo targeting.
Swisscows is committed to being family-friendly, and filters lots of explicit content entirely which may be a concern for some folks as it may filter out information related to gender and sexual minorities.
It is financed by advertising revenues and other services like software projects, technology licensing and plans to provide additional software and hardware services:
Because Swisscows does not monitor users and thus does not save or pass on user data either for themselves or for others, Swisscows has developed its own advertising concept. The concept is a software technology called AdAnounce that works similar to Google AdWords technology, with the important exception that user data is not passed on to the advertiser.Swisscows Business Model
All in all, Swisscows can be great alternative for people looking for a privacy-respecting and family-friendly search engine.
- Jurisdiction: Switzerland
- Business Model: Advertising and other sources
WolframAlpha: Answer Engine
WolframAlpha, styled as Wolfram|Alpha, is a computational knowledge engine or answer engine developed by Wolfram Research — it gets answers not by searching the web, but by doing dynamic computations based on a vast collection of built-in data, algorithms and methods.
I liked how you can do quick website comparison of any web address by just searching “facebook.com vs twitter.com”.
WolframAlpha doesn’t give you list of web pages as results but fact sheets, answers and relevant visualizations from a knowledge base of curated, structured data from other sites and books.
We may collect both Personal Information (PI) and non-Personal Information (non-PI) about you through your experience on our websites, from your use of our services and products and via other voluntary contact with you (collectively “Services”).
It is not that great as a private search engine, but computational intelligence answers engine that lets you compute expert-level answers using Wolfram’s breakthrough algorithms, knowledge base and AI technology.
Wolfram|Alpha has broad knowledge and deep computational power when it comes to math, extensive knowledge related to science and technology, Society & Culture, and deep knowledge about pop culture, personal finance, nutrition, health and countless other topics of everyday life.
It’s a fantastic search engine for students, scholars, and regular folks who are looking for expert knowledge answers from trusted sources.
- Jurisdiction: United States of America, and Other Countries
- Business Model: n/a (Privately held)
How to keep your Searches Private?
Alright, you already know some of the most privacy-respecting search engine listed above. Here are some tips that you can use to make your searches and web browsing experience just a bit more private:
Secure and Private Browser
A secure browser that respects your privacy that makes it harder to track and prevent browser fingerprinting coupled with a private search engine will do wonders to your privacy and security. I recommend using Mozilla Firefox with these modifications and add-ons or any of these recommended web browsers.
Good Ad-blocker and add-ons
An efficient ad-blocker will not only block ads, trackers and malware sites, but also protect your privacy. They will also make your browsing experience much faster as you won’t be loading a lot of junk every time you open a web page, and hence saving a lot of bandwidth. You can check all the recommended add-ons here.
Log out and Clear History
This is one of the best ways to prevent tacking by search engines, just log out of your different accounts or do browser compartmentalization where you would be using different browsers for different scenarios. You can also use something like Firefox multi-account containers to isolate your browsing cookies without having to clear your history, log in and out, or use multiple browsers.
Private Search Engines
Switching to a different search engine other than Google may seem a bit frustrating as you probably won’t be getting the same level of search results, but it is well worth it. I hope you enjoyed reading about these privacy tweaks on Firefox.
That’s all Folks!
I will be updating this page frequently with more privacy and security tools and information. You can check out all the most secure and private web browsers here.
Do let me know of any feedback, tips, or suggestions based on privacy and security tools you are using, feel free to drop a comment below!