Google and Bing might be the web’s most popular search engines, but they’re both a disaster from a privacy standpoint. They routinely harvest your data and use it in more ways than you care to imagine.
Is search engine privacy important to you? If so, you should consider using one of these alternative search engines instead.
What Kinds of Data Are Google and Bing Collecting?
Before we establish the best search engines for user privacy, let’s take a moment to look at what’s wrong with Google and Bing.
They will record and/or store four pieces of information every time you enter a query:
- IP address: It can reveal information about your location.
- A Cookie: Cookies let the search engine trace search queries back to your machine.
- Your search query: Lets the search engine show you targeted ads.
- Date and time of query: Gives the provider insight into what information you want and when you want it. Again, companies use it for targeted ads.
And it’s not just Google and Microsoft that have access to this information. Some search providers will sell your data to third-parties, and they will all hand over your information to the NSA and other similar entities on request.
So, which search engines should you use instead?
DuckDuckGo is the most well-established privacy-focused search engine, and enjoys more brand recognition than the other search engines on this list.
It doesn’t track or log any of your information, and the service doesn’t even use anonymous identifiers to link searches together; it won’t know whether two searches originated from the same machine. According to DuckDuckGo’s CEO, Gabriel Weinberg:
“If the FBI comes to us, we have nothing to tie back to you.”
The engine uses 400 sources to find results, but most hits are pulled from Yahoo, Bing, and Yandex. Google results are not included.
DuckDuckGo also has some unique non-privacy features, such as “Bangs.” By typing an exclamation point in front of a search query, you can search other sites directly. We’ve covered some of DuckDuckGo’s best bangs if you would like to learn more.
One of DuckDuckGo’s most significant downsides is that it does not pull results from Google Search. Purely from a results standpoint, Google’s engine is the best in the business, meaning its absence from DuckDuckGo is to the service’s detriment.
If you’d rather see Google’s results for your query, you should check out StartPage. Don’t worry; Google won’t be able to see anything that reveals your identity. It just sees a lot of traffic coming from StartPage’s servers. StartPage pays Google for the results and doesn’t send any user identifiers or IP addresses.
StartPage also provides a proxy feature. It’ll stop individual websites from seeing your IP address. The only negative is that pages will load more slowly if you use it.
Lastly, you can use non-US and non-EU servers if privacy laws in those regions worry you.
Parts of DuckDuckGo’s source code are open source, but SearX is entirely open source. As such, you can dig down into the code and make sure the company is delivering on its privacy promises.
And because SearX is open source, you can also set up and run your own instance of it. Doing so gives you a foolproof guarantee that your data is not being logged.
Functionally, SearX is a metasearch engine, meaning it aggregates data from a number of other search engines then provides you with the best mix available. Results from several of the other search engines on this list—including DuckDuckGo, Qwant, and StartPage—are available. You can customize the engines that SearX uses to find results in the Preferences menu.
SearX is also the first search engine on this list that’s both ad- and affiliate-free. Ads on the other services don’t track or use your data, but their absence here is a welcome benefit.
Qwant is recommended by PrivacyTools.io. It’s one of the leading campaigners against state-sponsored data recording, so its endorsement holds considerable weight.
Unlike DuckDuckGo, Qwant’s servers are in France. As such, they benefit from the EU’s stricter data protection laws.
It’s rapidly growing in popularity thanks to Qwick search shortcuts (which work like DuckDuckGo’s Bangs) and an impressive results pages that displays news stories, trending people, events, and other interesting stories independently from each other.
Formerly known as Hulbee, Swisscows makes the list thanks to its focus on family-friendly private searches. Results with adult themes are excluded from the results entirely, and there are no settings to override that behavior.
Swisscows does not store any personal data, IP addresses, search queries, or other identifiers. And as an added bonus, all of its servers are in Switzerland—a country with some of the strictest privacy laws in the world.
The site uses Bing’s search engine for its results, so you can be confident you’re going to see high-quality and relevant answers to your query.
It’s important to note that Swisscows uses machine learning to assess the context of your search keywords and thus provide better results. It shouldn’t have any impact on the safety of your data, but it might be a turn-off for the most privacy-conscious users.
Peekier offers all the usual privacy protections. It doesn’t store your IP address, browser’s user agent, search history, or unique IDs. It does save your queries for a limited period of time, but Peekier cannot trace them back to you.
The service deserves a mention thanks to the innovative and unique way it shows the results. Peekier uses your display’s full width to show results in a card format. It makes a refreshing change from the traditional way of displaying results, which often waste a lot of space.
Each result offers a snapshot of the website in question. The snapshot is a PNG image that’s no more than 80 KB, so it doesn’t impact on the performance of the site.
Unlike the other search engines we’ve discussed, Disconnect does not show results on its own page. Instead, it merely routes your query through its servers to anonymize you, then displays the results in whichever search engine you’ve selected.
Disconnect makes its money from a premium VPN service, so there are no ads or affiliate codes wrapped up in your results. We’ve covered some of Disconnect’s other features if you’re interested in knowing more.
Don’t Rely on Incognito Mode (or Private Browsing)
Incognito Mode is not a viable way to protect your online privacy. The way companies like Google and Microsoft describe it is often deceitful.
Sure, if you use an Incognito Mode, your browser will not record your search in its history, and it won’t download any cookies. However, the search engine will still have access to the types of data we mentioned earlier, and entities like your ISP or Wi-Fi network provider will still see your search terms.