Search engines are used to find products, services or information from the World Wide Web. But many search engines track users and their search keywords to target advertising towards them. Smart search engines sometimes take matters into their own hands and, guided by their analysis of the browsing history, even conceal results from the user. Hence, there is a need for private search engines. Let’s take a look at some of the best ones.
Search engines started out merely as tools for finding information on the Internet. But over the years they have evolved considerably, and are producing quicker and smarter results. They also now provide instant answers without you having to go to a website and look for the information. They understand queries well enough and automatically fetch little pieces of information. Search engines can provide various categories of search results, so that users get information on multiple aspects of what they are searching for.
However, there’s a darker side to all this that we hardly ever notice, but which is affecting us greatly. For example, some search engines record each search term entered in them and, based on that, they decide what information should be presented to the user and what shouldn’t. Sometimes the information really needed is buried under layers of unnecessary search results, which makes the person searching waste a lot of time.
The need for a private search engine
Privacy has been a hot topic over the past few years. Protecting one’s privacy in the real world might not be difficult but in the virtual world it is a whole different game. Many of us don’t know how to protect our privacy effectively because we don’t have a proper understanding of what needs to be protected on the Internet. As a matter of fact, no one exactly knows how they are tracked online.
Another key privacy concern related to search engines is the advertisements. Some search engines keep showing you the same ad, just because you may have shown interest in the product at some time. Ads can be quite intrusive when they’re following you through the Internet. Typically, these types of ads are often pointless and sometimes even out of context. But the existence of these ads implies that the search engines are monitoring your online activity and have quietly built a profile so that they can display ads of products that interest you, but very often against your will.
In this article, we’re going to check out six private search engines that safeguard the user’s privacy and do not collect their data. All of them also offer various useful features and privacy settings.
DuckDuckGo is one of the most popular private search engines. It protects its users by not collecting IP addresses and the user agent’s information. DuckDuckGo doesn’t store any tracking cookies on your system — the cookies are only saved in your system if you select the feature on the site that requires it to remember something. But even this cannot be used to identify you personally.
Instead of jumping between the pages of search results, DuckDuckGo dumps search results on a single page so that you can scroll through that page itself until you reach your desired search result.
When displaying results, DuckDuckGo sets Safe search as Strict so that the search results get filtered and show the results that are free from potentially explicit content.
DuckDuckGo has a cool feature called Bangs. These are much like shortcuts to websites that you can directly access without having to search for them or type their complete URL. Currently, DuckDuckGo supports 11,414 Bangs on various topics.
When you are trying out a new search engine, you will naturally be comparing the search results with those of earlier search engines.
Startpage provides Google-quality search results but with full privacy protection. Typically, Startpage acts as an intermediary. Whenever you use Startpage, the search results are fetched from Google, but instead of information about you getting transmitted to Google, Startpage makes the request on your behalf and returns the same search results to you without compromising your privacy.
Startpage also offers ‘anonymous view’ for the websites in its search results. This is because even though you are using a private search engine, once you click on a website, you could be tracked by the trackers on that website. However, when using ‘anonymous view’, the website cannot see your IP address or any identifiers. Instead, to them, it will look like Startpage’s IP address is accessing that website. However, there’s a catch when using ‘anonymous view’ — not all the elements on the website will be displayed properly.
Qwant is a privacy-respecting search engine from France. It protects its users by using anonymous search queries. It also doesn’t store the searches you made on it. Qwant makes sure that you are not tracked based on your searches.
The Qwant search interface offers a panoramic view of the search results, enabling users to get various types of search results classified as ‘Web’, ‘Images’, ‘Videos’, ‘Social’, ‘News’ and ‘Shopping’ on a single page. Users may swap between the different kinds of search results. The results provided in Qwant are unbiased, so all information is treated equally. The search results are not manipulated and neither is the order in which they are displayed.
Qwant also offers a music search engine known as Qwant Music. If you enter an artist’s name, it will display an overview of him, his discography, news articles on the musician, music videos and information on any upcoming concerts, and much more.
Qwant Board is an additional service apart from its Web search. By using these boards you can save your own content (videos, images, etc). You can share your boards with other users, they can view them and follow your boards, and even comment on them. But you must have a Qwant account to avail this service.
Qwant Junior is an extension of Qwant Search, which is designed especially for kids between the ages of 6-13. Qwant makes sure that the search results displayed are free of ads as well, apart from filtering out violence and explicit content.
Searx is a free meta-search engine that combines search results from other search engines on a single page. The engine uses approximately 70 sites as its search sources, so the results are not from one site but from many. Thus, it prevents personalisation of search results.
Searx classifies the search results in the following categories — General, Files, Images, It, Map, Music, News, Science, Social Media and Videos. This is so that you may select the appropriate category according to your needs. Under the Files category, Searx shows direct links to the Torrent files based on the search terms you entered.
Ads are stripped from the search results before they are displayed to the users. Also, you can use Searx along with Tor for online anonymity. Searx doesn’t track users nor does it profile users based on their searches.
Unlike other search engines, Searx is self-hostable free software. If you’re uncomfortable about trusting an outside party with your data, you can run your own instance so that you may have absolute control over your data.
Unbubble is a European neutral meta search engine from Germany. As its name implies, Unbubble represents a solution for the search bubble problem – sometimes a search engine may deliberately decide what information should be seen by the user based on various factors such as location, search patterns, etc. This gets users stuck in a bubble of repetitive content that they cannot get out of!
Unbubble solves this problem by gathering search results from as many sources as possible so that users may receive truly versatile and neutral search results.
Unbubble is committed to protecting its users’ privacy. It also hides the origin of visitors by removing the referrer field from HTTP headers.
Neutrality and uncensored results are the core principles of Unbubble, so each search result drawn from the search providers is assessed based on neutrality and relevance, and the results that are more detailed and neutral are placed at the top.
Similar to DuckDuckGo’s Bangs, Bubble tags are like shortcuts to particular websites. Some popular websites have more than one Bubble tag. Unbubble uses its own auto-completion system with strong SSL; so search terms are protected from outside parties.
Search operators are used for retrieving more relevant results by supplying additional instructions to the search queries; for example, ‘+cat’ retrieves the results containing exactly the keyword ‘cat’ and the opposite happens when ‘-cat’ is used, i.e., the search results will not contain the ‘cat’ keyword in them.
Search Encrypt is a search engine that uses a unique approach when it comes to privacy. Like the other search engines featured in this article, it does not track its users or their search terms. Unlike other search engines, however, it uses encryption on search queries made by the user using a short-lived key before the queries are sent to the Search Encrypt servers. So if you look at your search history, you will see that your search queries are encrypted. After 30 minutes of inactivity, your Search Encrypt search result pages expire — so no one will ever know what search terms you entered.
It also uses the Perfect Forward Secrecy method to ensure that a new key is generated for each session. If a session key that is used in data transmission is compromised, it can reveal only the data pertaining to that key alone. So, basically, if an attacker manages to get to know a session key, it cannot be used to decrypt your previous sessions.
Some search engines mentioned here display ads in their search results since they have to generate revenue, but none of them use these ads to violate the user’s privacy. Each search engine is unique so it is up to the users to select the right one for their needs.
The author is deeply interested in Linux and he spends most of his leisure time
exploring open source.