Sushruta's Blog

The Multiverse of Private Search Engines

Search engines are a peculiar thing. They are, quite literally, our gateway to the internet.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the first web search engine(s) -- since there were multiple -- went live in 1993, only three years since the first website went live. Even before the advent of the World Wide Web, pre-web search engines for protocols like FTP and Gopher existed. (Fun fact: one of the earliest Gopher search engines, Jughead, is still available for use under a different name. Check it out here.)

One thing is clear: search engines are vital for the usage of what we know as the internet. There are almost 1.9 billion websites live on the World Wide Web now (source). That is, to say the least, gigantic, and certainly beyond the realm of possibility to remember for any normal human being. This is where search engines come in, providing you with ''all'' these websites on demand, catered to your requirements. Ain't that amazing, eh?

Google It

You have heard this term before. Chances are, you hear (and use) this term every day. Much like Xerox and Coke, Google has become synonymous with search engines. No one asks you to search for a particular term on a search engine of your choice any more, it is always "Google it". And no wonder so, considering its market share, which stands at a staggering 88% as of June 2021 (source).

This is dangerous.

Google's exploits with our private data is well-known and well-documented. Read here, here, and here.

In this scenario, it is extremely vital that we all stop using Google search. Right now.

Google Search It, in Private

As Google's shitty behaviour towards user privacy becomes more and more mainstream, privacy-focused search engines are popping up left and right.

P.S.: Before you read further, I encourage you to read more about the difference between search engines and metasearch engines if you are not aware already. You can read it here or anywhere else. I would reference it a lot below, so this knowledge is needed for you to totally understand what is being said.

Below, I will list the privacy-focused search engines that I have used in my bid to find the perfect replacement for the GBY Google, Bing, Yahoo!) giants. All the search engines stated below have extremely strong privacy policies and a (near-)clean track record in handling user data.

Each search engine has its own pros and cons, and they can and should be used for different purposes and needs. After a significant time searching on many of them, I have attached my own personal experience and comments along with the details. Please remember that all these are very subjective and may not hold true for you, so I welcome you to try them and decide for yourself.

Let's get right on, then.

Startpage

Homepage
Based in: The Netherlands
Open Source: No (read their team's response as to why this is the case here)

What I Like About It

There is a reason why I ranked Startpage at the very top. Startpage pays Google to show you their search results with an added layer of privacy -- which essentially means that using Startpage is like using Google without Google (that's too many Googles in one sentence). For me, as someone with more than a decade of Google-addiction, this is the next best thing there is. In fact, I have set Startpage as the default search option on many of my non-techie friend's machines without them ever realising the change -- it's that similar to Google.

Of course, privacy-wise, Startpage is nothing like Google.

What Sucks

Startpage's image search sucks to say the least. I mean, my god, their image search is hideous. There are a very limited number of images present in each page (just three rows). The result previews are tiny and of low quality. The same problem goes with its video search, which seems to only source YouTube videos in its result. The fact that Startpage's video results help page only talks about YouTube increases this conviction of mine (source).

Other than that, there are not a lot of things to complain about. Searches are a bit slow, but nothing that is too concerning.

Some Notes

In 2019, Startpage announced that it had received significant investments from System1, an American ad-tech company, through their wholly-owned subsidiary Privacy One Group (source). This kicked off quite a storm in the privacy circles (check out this and this). PrivacyTools.IO delisted them from their recommended search engine list (source). Since then, Startpage has clarified their stance towards privacy through multiple statements (read this and this). Finally, convinced that their privacy-first attitude has not changed following the System1 investment, PrivacyTools.IO relisted Startpage on their recommended list (source).

Qwant

Homepage
Based in: France
Open Source: Partially (read their statement here)

What I Like About It

There are many things to like in Qwant. Firstly, it has its own crawlers for building an independent index (source). Contrary to the popular misconception that Qwant simply shows results from Microsoft Bing, it simply uses those results to compliment the results from its own index (source). Therefore, Qwant seems committed to build its own search index while providing (more or less) relevant results in the meantime.

Its search results are quite relevant in my experience, even so that if I am dissatisfied with the results that I see in Startpage, my immediate reaction is to fall back to Qwant.

However, more than its text search engine, where Qwant really takes the prize is its map service.

What Sucks

Qwant sometimes simply refuses to work, for no reason at all! Instead, I get a screen that says "Qwant is temporarily unavailable please check your connection or refresh page." Then it's just endless refreshing the tab until the search pops up. Yes, it's annoying as hell, and is one of the main reasons I looked for Qwant's alternatives (and landed at Startpage) after using it as my default search for almost a year.

Qwant
This is how Qwant repays my love from time to time.

Another problem with Qwant is that it simply refuses to open when JavaScript is disabled. Instead, it redirects to something called Qwant Lite. It seems to be a stripped-down version of Qwant, though I am not sure about the exact feature changes.

Whoogle

Homepage
Based in: Depends on the instance being used
Open Source: Yes (check it out here)

What I Like About It

Whoogle is, simply speaking, an open-source version of Startpage, in that it allows Google search results to be viewed with an added layer of privacy. Whoogle is so much like Google, that, in fact, one might struggle to differentiate between the two if not for the UI changes.

Whoogle allows you to access almost all the features of Google search, including Books and Maps (with the help of OpenStreetMap).

Whoogle also allows for a good number of customizations, including relaying the search request through TOR.

But the best part? Whoogle is superfast, seemingly even faster than Google itself. Quite an achievement.

What Sucks

The main downfall of Whoogle is the place where it deviated from Google -- the UI. Firstly, the homepage where the search takes place looks absolutely bare bones (and not in a good way). Then, the results page is, for some god-knows-what reason, centre-aligned! I don't know why, but it just looks wrong to my eyes -- which is why I stick to Startpage and not this.

Whoogle's case is also not helped by a lack of any official instance. So you will either have to host it yourself or rely on third-parties. The instance that I use is this one, hosted by Garuda Linux.

Searx

Homepage
Based in: Public instances pretty much all over the world
Open Source: Yes (check it out here)

What I Like About It

Searx is probably the most well-known open source search engine on the internet. It has quite a reputation in the privacy circles, and it does live up to them -- Searx is pretty much the largest metasearch engine on the internet. It can search from more than one hundred sources (including Google, DuckDuckGo, Wikipedia, and more). You can search for literally anything and everything, including text, images, files (apps, torrents, et cetera), gits, maps, news, social media, and videos. Now, that is something!

In fact, you will realize how powerful Searx is once you dive into its preferences. You can modify almost everything related to the search engine, including but not limited to how its instant answering modules work, how it submits forms, how it proxies images, and so on. There is also something unique called "plugins", which are basically like extensions for Searx. They can allow you to do multiple things -- for example, bypassing paywalls, remove URL trackers, use Vim-like key bindings, and more. You can also visit archived versions of any website in your results instead of visiting them directly -- this doesn't even require any plugins.

Truly, there is more to Searx than what can be covered here. I urge you to try it and modify it for yourself -- the possibilities are endless.

What Sucks

The customization options are plenty, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can get pretty overwhelming for people who are not very tech-savvy. The UI is very dated when compared to, say, Whoogle. And, like Whoogle, it lacks any official instance, so you will have to either trust a third-party hosted instance or host one yourself. Luckily, there are some terrific organizations hosting there own Searx instances, so you do not have to worry about your privacy being stolen.

Some Notes

I mainly use two reputed Searx instances: this and this.

DuckDuckGo

Homepage
Based in: USA
Open Source: Partially (read their statement here)

What I Like About It

DuckDuckGo is the largest privacy-focused search engine on the net, and is on the top of almost everyone's recommendation list. Although I don't share the same level of enthusiasm, it's true that there is a lot to like about DuckDuckGo. Firstly, the UI is fantastic -- there is no other word for it.

The image search in DuckDuckGo is probably the best in the market, even better than Google's counterpart in my opinion. It is fast, it has almost every filter that is possible, and -- the best part -- it allows you to click on the picture and see the file (something that Google used to allow before). DuckDuckGo also has a "definition" tab that allows you to find out the meaning of any word quickly. The best part, however, is the "instant answers" part, where you can see certain details like Wikipedia information directly form the results page. There is also a much talked-about bangs feature, which is pretty much useless to me, since I rely on Firefox's global search shortcuts.

DuckDuckGo also allows me to turn off any advertisements on the site (although it's not any more effective for me since I use an ad blocker). But still, advertisements are their main revenue source, and the fact that DuckDuckGo allows you to turn it off, no questions asked, is surely a great step in my view.

What Sucks

The search results, in general, are usually not very useful for me. While it does pretty well with more common terms, it struggles with descriptive or largest queries. This is probably due to DuckDuckGo's reliance on Bing. However, it is nice and definitely works as a nice fallback option, since it almost never has any downtime unlike most other search engines.

Many people, however, do have concerns about DuckDuckGo being based in the USA, due to their well-known privacy-intrusive laws. You can read about American internet privacy laws and their effects here.

Mojeek

Homepage
Based in: United Kingdom
Open Source: No

What I like About It

Obviously, the fact that Mojeek have their own crawler MojeekBot is a massive plus. In fact, they probably have the largest crawler outside of what we call Big Tech (i.e. outside of Google, Bing and Yandex). This is obviously a very positive step in breaking free of Big Tech's control. I strongly believe that an independent search engine index is necessary to fight the sort of censorships that happens on Google, Bing, and Yandex.

Considering the fact that Mojeek has a relatively smaller index than, say, Google or Bing, its results are surprisingly relevant when more common terms are searched. One thing, however, that truly surprised me, was Mojeek's excellent handling of quick answers. In fact, it showed football results when I searched for a tournament name (for example, Euro 2020), which I don't think I have seen in any search engine other than Google's. Fantastic. Mojeek also has a totally unique feature called "Emotions", which lets you search for any term and it will show results according to a pre-defined mood (love, haha, and so on). It is more of a hit-and-miss, to be honest, but the fact that they tried to do something like this is commendable.

Another plus point of Mojeek is its UI, which is surprisingly very sleek and polished. The green on black colour scheme (in Mojeek's dark mode) is quite excellent.

What Sucks

"Sucks" would be too strong a word in this context, but Mojeek's results suffer when more complex terms are searched. It's expected, though, but at least they are trying to build a new index rather than sourcing from others. Another complaint would be that its "News" portal almost exclusively feature UK-based news, which is a bit of a downer for people from other countries.

Mojeek's image search is also pretty useless, as it only has a handful of images for even the most common terms. However, it does let you source images from Bing on its website, which is a saving grace in my books.

Metager

Homepage
Based in: Germany
Open Source: Yes (check it out here)

What I Like About It

Firstly, Metager gets its search results from Bing and Scopia (which I must admit I have no idea about). It doesn't stand out in any way, but it does the search pretty well. Also, it's "news" section is pretty good, even though it sources from only one source. More sources would definitely be better, though.

What Sucks

Okay, there are a couple of problems to get at. Firstly, the image search is pretty much useless since it neither allows you to preview any image nor does it have information like the size or caption. However, it does allow you to filter image results by licence, which is a nice feature. Metager's "shopping" feature is also not very useful to anyone living outside the EU.

Last but not the least, Metager's UI looks like it belongs to the last century, which is a bit disappointing.

Peekier

Homepage
Based in: Unknown
Open Source: No

What I Like About It

Peekier has a unique feature set: you search for something and get the results... along with a screenshot of the websites to take a peek (get the pun?) at before you open them. Peekier is definitely different than the others -- it tries to do one thing only and does it well. It is not meant to be your primary search engine, but it does come handy in certain times, especially if you want to save your time by not opening a bunch of websites.

The UI is minimal -- in a nice way. It's fast and responsive. It also comes with certain customizations to make the search results faster. And, as many others have pointed out too, its privacy policy is short and to the point.

Also, worth noting is that Peekier claims to have its own search index in the making, which at the moment powers 15-20% of its results; the rest are sourced from Bing (source).

What Sucks

Nothing that comes to mind, really. It does not have anything other than text search because it isn't meant for those features. That's understandable. The image loading is a bit slow on the first try (probably due to the heavy websites in the results), but it does get faster later due to caching.

Right Dao

Homepage
Based in: USA
Open Source: No (read their team's response as to why this is the case here)

What I Like About It

Right Dao is another privacy-focused search engine with its own index made from scratch, which can only be something good. And, while it does struggle to deal with some obscure terms, it does surprisingly well with some more common terms. In fact, its "news" part is extremely good, going head-to-head with those relying on Google or Bing. Also, Right Dao has a minimalistic approach towards UI, which is pretty well pulled-off.

I also like the fact that I can search a specific time frame for results -- it is a neat and useful feature, though it is a bit hidden away.

What Sucks

I don't know if this does belong here, since it is not exactly a feature, but I do not like the name and the logo of Right Dao. The name is hard to remember and quite uncomfortable to say, and the logo just sticks out like a sore thumb in the dark mode setting. Right Dao also has no image search options, which is disappointing, but I suspect it's because of their reluctance to pair up with either Bing or Google (images are expensive to index).

Gigablast

Homepage
Based in: USA
Open Source: Yes (check it out here)

What I Like About It

Firstly, Gigablast has its own crawler and index, which is commendable, and it even manages to find pretty good results if the search terms are not too complicated. The results might take some time to show, but it is pretty good.

Though I can understand that many people might take issue with Gigablast's retro look (which seems to be inspired by Google's original design), I actually kind of like it. Also, I don't know about you, but I love their short and to-the-point privacy policy.

One of the best features of Gigablast is its "directory" feature, which features the top websites in its index, all very neatly divided into cateogies like Art, Gaming, et cetera. I have not seem something like this in any other search engine.

What Sucks

There are a few things that Gigablast fails to do perfectly (or sometimes, at all). Firstly, there is a constant problem with results in foreign language showing up, even though I searched for very general terms. The news section is also very irrelevant and outdated. Secondly, the thing which shocked me the most, is that the image search does not work at all. In fact, it seems to show the same results with a bigger image preview. Thirdly, why does Gigablast's results use only around one-fourth of the screen's space? It makes for some really uncomfortable UI.

Gigablast
No, Gigablast, this is not how image results should look like.

Swisscows

Homepage
Based in: Switzerland
Open Source: No

What I Like About It

Swisscows gets it results from Bing, and the results are displayed in a format which almost mirrors DuckDuckGo. So anyone who is concerned about DuckDuckGo's US-origins will see Swisscows as an alternative.

Swisscows has a few features that some people may like, but I personally have no use for. One of them is "liking" images from the image search results, which sort of bookmarks it. Also, one can directly view YouTube videos from the website, but I don't see any particular benefit that anyone will get by doing that (since YouTube will track you anyway).

As a bonus point, Swisscows seems to be the only privacy-focused search engine that donates a part of their search proceedings to charitable purposes, which may be a swaying factor for many.

What Sucks

Despite the many positives of Swisscows, there is plenty to dislike too. The main window is way too crowded for my liking, and, unlike other search engines, it can't be changed. Therefore, every time I open the site, I am greeted with advertisements for its mobile apps, and full-blown videos documenting its charity works. This gimmicky nature of Swisscows carries over to its search results page as well, where the simple "related searches" is converted into a weird-looking word cloud-thing, gloriously named "Semantic Map". It's useless and ends up taking quite a bit of space.

Swisscows
This is what Swisscows looks like, with an adblocker on.

The searches are slow, especially the video search, which takes a few seconds too many to be borderline irritating. The image search performs better, but the previews take a long time to load. Also, I dislike the fact that all images in the results window are shown as squares, since I personally like to see the orientation of an image.

Swisscows struggles with speed all over. It has a nice "Preview", which allows you to see the screenshot of its homepage anonymously instead of visiting the website. It would be mighty useful only if it worked! It's so slow that most of the times, the website loads many seconds before the screenshot even begins to appear.

However, what I hate the most is its creepy feature of tracking the number of searches that you have done. This feature is impossible to opt out off, and it works even if you don't have an account on Swisscows.

Also, this does not apply to everyone, but Swisscows has an iOS app but not an Android app, and that pisses me off.

Ask.Moe

Homepage
Based in: Copenhagen, Denmark
Open Source: Yes (check it out here)

What I Like About It

It's minimal and fast. And, it's open source, which is always something to support. It gets its results from Bing, which means that they are quite respectable in terms of quality, even if not as good as the likes of Qwant or DuckDuckGo. Ask.Moe also supports certain quick answers like "flip a coin", with more features promised in the future.

Ask.Moe has a very strong privacy policy, and it works even with JavaScript disabled (unlike Qwant, for example). You can also self-host Ask.Moe if you so want.

What Sucks

There is absolutely no customization, which is a bummer. The UI is a bit weird, which can be improved. Definitely not ready to be used at this present state, but one to keep an eye out for.

Homepage
Based in: USA
Open Source: No (read their team's response as to why this is the case here)

What I Like About It

I must admit before I start writing this that I haven't spend a lot of time using Brave Search, mainly because it is still in beta and came out not too long ago. So my pointers may be incomplete or subject to change very quickly.

That being said, Brave Search, at least on the first look, functions extremely well. In fact, it is hard to believe that it uses its own search index (which it got when it acquired Tailcat). The UI is -- I kid you not -- the best I have seen on any search engine. The instant results on the right side looks good, and actually contains much more data than even Google does, which is no mean feat.

The video search results are quite varied and shows results from multiple websites instead of focusing on just YouTube as most others do.

What Sucks

Again, I must clarify that I have not used this as heavily as the others, so this might be a bit incomplete. While using Brave Search, I came across a few problems and glitches. For one, the dark mode settings never persisted across sessions for me. Every time I refreshed, it turned back to light mode, which was pretty jarring. The image search is terrific and almost as good as DuckDuckGo's, but it lacks the feature of filtering the results by license. Not a big deal, but still.

I do, however, have some confusion about Brave Search's future plans. It says that once out of the beta phase, it will offer two tiers -- one will be ad-supported and free, the other will be paid and ad-free (source). However, I am not sure how it will achieve this, since Brave's own browser is pitched as an ad-blocking browser. How will an ad-blocking browser show ads? I guess we will have to wait and see.

Some Notes

Brave Search is clearly not ready to be rolled on to the market just yet, but it does look like a pretty strong contender once it matures further. I predict that this section will undergo some serious updates in the coming times.

Petey Vid

Homepage
Based in: USA
Open Source: No

What I Like About It

Petey Vid has one task -- it lets you find videos from more than 70 video platforms in an unbiased manner. Of course, there is a very strong privacy policy in place. That being said, while the results are not the best if you are searching for something specific, it is indeed varied, sourced from many different places, perfect for research purposes.

Also, more than the platform itself, I loved the fact that it was named after the founder's cat (source). Absolutely brilliant.

What Sucks

Since Petey Vid is relatively a newer entry (it was founded in the end of 2018), it still needs some polish in its UI (which is a bit blocky). Also, in my use, I found that the thumbnails of the video results never seemed to load.

Conclusion

As you can see, if you are willing to break away from the clutches of Google, you have many options. While these many options can itself be a cause of demotivation for many, I urge you to try them all and find which one suits you. Or, be like me and use them all as your heart wishes. There are no limits to what you can do -- you and your data are safe from prying eyes.

Some Hurdles I Faced

For some reason, one search engine that I was really excited about -- Privado -- would not work for me at all. I don't know if it was anything on my side, but any search input that I entered "-did not yield any result". Nothing, nada. Shame.

Privado
Apparently, Privado doesn't like me.

There are some self-hosted solutions like Infinity Decentralized and YaCy that are horrible as general-purpose search engines but will probably function well as a self-hosted solution in, say, a blog or a website.

I have also been aware of a blockchain-based decentralized search engine called Presearch. While it claims to be private and its privacy policy looks a-okay to me, I could not find much information as to how it actually works or where it sources its results from. It also provides cryptocurrency payments as rewards for searching, and this needs to be evaluated more before it can be recommended.

Similarly, another search engine called Gibiru claims to be an "uncensored private search" engine. Quite a nice statement, and its privacy policy is short and sweet. However, it claims to earn commissions from purchases made through the website -- which is something I am not too keen about. I will look to evaluate it further some day.

My Complaints With Privacy-Focused Search Engines

There are a few common problems that I have with all of the above mentioned search engines. As someone who has used Google for more than a decade, I am used to certain things that I miss from time to time.

Firstly, my biggest complaint is the lack of any proper (Android) mobile app. Except Mojeek and Metager, I am yet to see any search engine having a proper search-only app. The two other search engines that provide apps -- Qwant and DuckDuckGo -- offer full-fledged browsers instead of just search portals. This is annoying -- I already have a preferred browser and don't need one more.

Secondly, on my laptop, I miss a dedicated image search URL that Google provided. So, instead of having to search a term on Google and then clicking on "images", I could directly go to Google Images and search there. This option is not found in any of the privacy-focused search engines that I have mentioned. It's not a crippling problem, but it sure is an annoyance that I suppose should not be very hard to solve.

Bonus Tool

Check out Wutsearch, which will allow you to search on multiple search engines of your choice from one page.

Read More

Nice read if you're interested in the history of search engines: Before Google: A history of search

A brilliant read about all things related to alternative search engines, and with further reading material referenced at the end: A 2021 List of Alternative Search Engines and Search Resources

A list of privacy-conscious search engines and their reviews: Escape from Google: 12 privacy-promoting search engines reviewed

#tech

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