January 2, 2022

The Pros and Cons of Using a Private Search Engine

Posted by Rhiannon

Private search engines are a safer alternative to traditional search engines like Google and Bing. Their main goal is, well, exactly what it seems: to protect the privacy of their users. However, many people are hesitant to make the switch to a new search provider because they worry that they will lose the convenience and comfort they’ve come to expect online. If you’re considering changing search engines, learn the pros and cons of using a private search engine.

  • What is a private search engine?
  • How do they differ from incognito mode?
  • What are the pros and cons of using a private search engine?
  • What are the most popular private search engines?
  • How else can you remain private online?

What is a Private Search Engine?

The world’s most popular search engine, by far, is Google. The platform sees roughly 92 percent of all search traffic online. Despite its ubiquity, and that of search engines in general, many people don’t know exactly what a search engine is or how it works. Here’s what you should know:

How Do Search Engines Work?

A typical search engine is built on two things: algorithms and bots. The bots, also known as web crawlers, scour the web for new and old web pages. They collect data from those pages, such as page title, topic, content length and clarity, keywords, and more. From there, that information is catalogued and sorted by the algorithm, which helps classify what the data on each page really says. By determining the main keywords used on each web page, the search engine can help match users with websites based on the search parameters they use. For example, if a person searches for “jewelry stores in New York City,” the algorithm can search the catalogued web pages for a website which includes the keywords “jewelry” and “New York” to return the correct results.

Both regular and private search engines use this basic premise in order to provide their services. However, there are a few things that differentiate them: mostly, how they handle user data. Because search engines are typically free, they need to raise money to fund their work somehow. In the case of a regular search engine, like Google, that money is raised by collecting and selling user data to advertisers and other third parties. That’s why, if you use their platform to search for jewelry stores in New York one time, you’ll start seeing ads for such businesses on nearly every website you visit. Google has sold the data about your search to advertisers who can follow you across websites.

A private search engine, on the other hand, may show you ads (they do pay the bills after all). However, these ads tend to be de-personalized because your data is not collected and sold.

In addition, private search engines typically do not store browser history.

Is a Search Engine a Web Browser?

In short: no. However, the two things are easily confused. This has to do with how the technologies have developed over time. When the internet first hit the mainstream and became more widely available around the world, web browsers and search engines had a more clear delineation. 

At the time, a web browser was how you accessed the internet. It was the doorway to the web. However, in order to find content online, you needed a search engine as well, which was accessed separately. It functioned as the map. For example, a person might use the Internet Explorer web browser, but the Google Search search engine.

As the web developed, search engines became integrated right into web browsers. Google Chrome is perhaps the most popular example. Although it was designed as a web browser, you can simply search for content online directly from the browser’s home page; no more navigating to a separate site to search. 

Although the two technologies are commonly integrated today, lending to the confusion between them, their functions are separate.

How Does a Private Search Engine Differ From Incognito Mode?

Most search engines come with a built in incognito, or privacy mode. Unfortunately, many users believe this is the same thing as a private search engine, and use it accordingly. However, private search engines and incognito mode are not the same. In fact, incognito affords the user next to no privacy. 

Here’s what incognito does:

  • Erases your browsing history for the session
  • Erases cookies and site data for the session
  • Does not save form data

Meanwhile, here’s what incognito does not do:

  • Hide your activity from the search engine you use or the websites you visit. For example, if you use Google’s Incognito Mode, Google can still see your online activity. Meanwhile, if you watch content on YouTube, YouTube also knows what you’re watching.
  • Hide your activity from your ISP. If your goal is to hide activity from your internet service provider (such as torrenting), incognito is not the way to go, as they can still monitor your activity.
  • Hide your activity from your workplace or school. Because they can monitor the traffic sent through their ISP, they can see your activity even in incognito.

No matter how effective you believe incognito mode to be, your data is still collected by the platform you use. Private search engines, by contrast, do not collect your personally identifiable data at all, which means that, even if they can see your browsing activity, they cannot connect it to you.

What are the Pros and Cons of Private Search Engines?

While private search engines are a great option for internet users who want to increase their privacy online, the pros do come with some cons. Here’s a comprehensive list:

  • Pro: Protect your data
  • Con: Less advanced results
  • Pro: No targeted ads
  • Con: Searches aren’t saved
  • Pro: Get unbiased search results
  • Pro: Search for a cause
  • Con: Searches aren’t saved
  • Pro: Trust your search provider

Pro: Protect Your Data

Most major search engines operate with the goal of collecting as much data about you as possible. While this helps them return relevant search results, it also makes them money because they sell your data to advertising companies and similar businesses. Non-private search engines are able to collect information including your IP address and location, your search queries, your age, name, medical issues, finances, and more, all of which puts your privacy at serious risk. The first and most obvious benefit to switching search engines is that a private search engine collects no personal information about you.

Con: Less Advanced Results

Google is the champion when it comes to the quality of results. They don’t just beat small, private search engines, they also beat Yahoo, Bing, and everyone else. So, one slight con to using a private search engine is that the results aren’t quite as good. Most small engines also partner with bigger companies to pull results from them, instead of building their own complicated web crawler. However, as long as your search isn’t a very niche topic, most private search engines can still provide the answers you need.

Pro: No Targeted Ads

Regular search engines often sell your data to advertising companies, and those companies track you with targeted ads in return. Not only are targeted ads annoying, they can sometimes be spooky, especially when they hit you with something you swear you had only mentioned aloud. Companies can also target you with ads for places you’ve simply walked by, because location services provide them with that data as well. While we can’t tell you a private search engine won’t show you ads (in fact, ads are usually the only way they make money), those ads will be search specific instead of person specific. That means, if you search for socks, you’ll see an ad for socks.

Con: Searches Aren’t Saved

Most private search engines don’t save your search history, or may save it for a very limited time. While this protects your privacy, it can also reduce the convenience of the search engine if you just can’t find that article you read last month and need to bring up again to prove a point at Thanksgiving dinner.

Pro: Get Unbiased Search Results

The data regular search engines collect about you helps them build a profile about your entire life. Your search history and other online activity influences what they know and believe about you, and they use that knowledge to give you search results they think you’ll want. While not bad in every circumstance, this can make finding unbiased search results difficult, and also contributes to the growing problem of confirmation bias. Because a private search engine knows nothing about you, all results are unbiased.

Con: Some Aren’t Truly Private

As much as we all want to trust everything we see on the internet, sometimes we just can’t. The same goes for private search engines. Some may claim to be fully private but don’t truthfully follow through on that claim. The best way to avoid using a falsely private search engine is simply to do your research ahead of time. Read all platforms’ privacy policies.

Pro: Search for a Cause

If saving the world is your thing, using a private search engine just might be perfect for you. Because they’re competing with search giants, many of the private ones are trying to differentiate themselves by offering search perks. German-based ecosia.org promises to plant trees in exchange for searches. The private search engine Givero donates a share of their profits to various charities. Many other search engines are following suit.

Pro: Trust Your Search Provider

Because you don’t have to worry about your data being stolen or hacked, using a private search engine simply increases the level of trust you can have in the company behind the search.

What are the Most Popular Private Search Engines?

As privacy becomes a growing concern in the digital sphere, many internet users are increasingly making the switch from regular search engines to private ones. In order to meet the demand, the number of private options you can choose from is also growing. There are now dozens on the market, but some popular ones include:

  • DuckDuckGo. One of the most popular private engines out there, DuckDuckGo has a clean user interface, does not pepper you with ads, and never tracks personally identifiable information.
  • Startpage. At the beginning, Startpage was often compared to Google, which harmed its image rather than helped it. However, after many years of hard work, the service has evolved into a reputable privacy engine, offering a customizable experience free from data tracking.
  • Ecosia. You may have heard that some digital activities, like Bitcoin mining, generate high levels of greenhouse gas emissions that harm the planet. But did you know that high search engine activity can have the same effect? Ecosia is a privacy-focused engine that also offers the added benefit of planting trees for every search made.

How Else Can You Stay Private Online?

Although new rules and regulations surrounding online privacy are being developed and implemented every day, we’re still a long way from enjoying true privacy online. Especially while user data is one of the hottest commodities in the digital world. If you’re looking to improve your online privacy, a private search engine is a great place to start. There are also other tools you can use, such as:

  • A VPN. VPNs, or virtual private networks, change a user’s IP address (which is the thing websites and ISPs use to identify you). By browsing with a different IP than your usual one, your activity can’t be traced back to you. In addition, VPNs encrypt your traffic so prying eyes can’t see what you’re up to. You can learn more about how VPNs work with this quick video.
  • Tor. Tor is an internet browser designed to keep user activity private by filtering their activity through an enormous network of servers, which obscures the identity of each user. You can pair Tor with a VPN and/or a private search engine for even greater privacy, though the service may end up slowing down your internet connection.

Just as every person is different, every search engine is different. Not every engine will suit every person. We recommend taking some time to do your research on all options so you choose the best for your needs.

You can do your research with HotBot VPN, so your browsing information isn’t stored on any search engine, anywhere.

Posted by Rhiannon

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