August 7, 2022

How Do Private Search Engines Make Money?

Posted by Rhiannon

In recent years, the supremacy of search engine giants like Google and Bing has begun to be challenged. Growing concerns over privacy violations have driven people to find safer alternatives in private engines like DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, and Startpage. Unlike traditional options, these search alternatives claim that they don’t use tracking cookies or collect user information at all, keeping your identity safe. However, much of Google and Bing’s income is generated through the use of targeted ads created by the data they collect. So how do private search engines, with no saved user information, create revenue in order to operate?

  • What is a private search engine?
  • How do they make money?
  • Are they truly safe?
  • Extra privacy tips

What is a Private Search Engine?

Search engines are the internet equivalent of GPS. You tell them where you want to go (ex. “recipe for chocolate cake”) and the results they provide tell you how to get there (ex. they might give you a list of websites like Food Network and AllRecipes with recipes for chocolate cake). Without search engines, you’d have to know the exact name of the webpage you wanted, which is simply impossible, with billions of pages on the web.

Both traditional search engines (like Google and Bing) and private search engines (like DuckDuckGo) fulfill the same need. The difference between them is that a private search engine doesn’t collect user data to do it. This may mean your search results may be a little less perfect (since they’re not tailored to you as a person), but they’re much safer for your private data.

How do Private Search Engines Make Money?

Google makes much of its money by collecting user data. It knows your IP address, your search history, the amount of time you spend on each website, the things you buy online, and more. All of this data helps them create a digital profile for you, which can be used to smother you with tailored ads (which they make money from), or which they can sell to third-parties (who can then use that data to target you with more ads, for example). Most private search engines make the promise that they don’t collect your private data, which means they can’t profit from it. Instead, they make money through:

  • Contextual ads
  • Affiliate links
  • Shopping search
  • Donations

Contextual Ads

While private engines don’t use targeted ads to earn income, that doesn’t mean they don’t advertise at all. Instead, they use contextual ads. The difference between the two all comes down to tracking. If you were to look up socks on Google, Google would store the information that you’re interested in socks. If you later look up brownie recipes, Google might still show you ads for socks because it knows that’s what you were interested in before. That’s called a targeted ad.

Contextual ads are based on keywords. If you look up socks, you will be shown an ad for socks. If you look up brownie recipes, you will be shown an ad for brownie recipes. As soon as you navigate away from a page, the private engine forgets what you were looking for and any other ads you see will be directly related to the search you are making.

Private Search Engines Make Money Through Affiliate Links

Many private engines earn income through the use of affiliate partnerships. With this method, they partner with a company or organization interested in increasing traffic to their website. The partner provides them with a link which contains a specific ID or username. The affiliate partner is able to log how many times the link is clicked and pays a small amount of money to the search engine for every click, as a reward for the engine generating traffic.

Shopping Search

Some private search engines are beginning to integrate shopping features into their platforms. When you make a search, they might include a sidebar that shows you where you can buy products related to that search. Every time a user clicks one of those products, the search engine earns a little bit of revenue. This method is very similar to the use of affiliate links but specifically directs to ecommerce stores, whereas an affiliate link can direct to any web page the partner wants traffic for.


Some private search engines were designed as non-profit organizations. They rely on donations for income instead of ads or affiliate programs. This is similar to how Wikipedia generates income to continue running.

Are Private Search Engines Truly Safe?

When they first hit the web, private search engines certainly seemed like a safer alternative to traditional options. And while that is still mostly true today, some of them have started to turn to the dark side. In May 2022, it was discovered that DuckDuckGo allowed some tracking cookies to be placed on their site by partner company Microsoft. While that’s still less tracking than Google does, it still goes against the basic premise of private search engines. It also means people need to carefully research their chosen search engine before use.

Extra Privacy Tips

If you want to increase your online privacy further, you can do a few things:

  • Use a fast VPN. VPN services change your IP address, which makes you anonymous online. Even if a private search engine uses tracking scripts, they won’t gather accurate data about you. They also delete your cookies after every session, which private search engines should do anyways, but you can be extra sure of it with a VPN. This practice can be extra helpful if you use a traditional search engine.
  • Delete your cookies manually. Cookies are bits of code that help websites work better. For example, they’ll keep you signed into your frequently visited websites so you don’t have to log in every time. But they’re also the tool most sites use to track users, including search engines. By deleting them manually rather than trusting your search engine to do it for you, you can help lower their ability to track you.

Private search engines are still small but they’re also mighty, and growing every day. They’re a safer option than engines like Google and Bing because they limit the amount of everyday tracking users face while online. However, the safest way to use a private search engine is to research it thoroughly and pair it with other privacy techniques like using a VPN.

Posted by Rhiannon

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