Picture for a moment a version of Google Search that barely evolved from its early years. Instead of a results page cluttered by informational widgets, this one would primarily link out to other sites. And instead of tracking your search history for ad targeting purposes, this search engine would be decidedly impersonal.
It turns out that such a thing exists today in Startpage, a Netherlands-based Google search alternative that emphasizes privacy. While it’s not the only privacy-first search engine—DuckDuckGo is a better-known example—Startpage is the only one whose search results come from Google, due to a unique and longstanding agreement in which Startpage pays the search giant to get a feed of links for any search. The result is a search engine that feels a lot like Google did before it leaned into personalized search and advertising—and all of its requisite data collection—about 15 years ago.
“We don’t collect, share, or save any personal information,” says Robert Beens, Startpage’s CEO. “That means not setting cookies. It means not storing IP addresses. We don’t store your searches, and we don’t profile you.”
Although StartPage has been around as a privacy-focused search engine since 2006, it’s made several major improvements lately as people become more wary of data collection by tech giants. Last year, the search engine launched a new design and an “Anonymous View” feature that hides your device’s identity from the sites you click on. StartPage doesn’t disclose user numbers but said in early 2018 that it was handling two billion searches annually, and says that it’s seen 10% growth in search volume this year.
Startpage added another big feature: it’s an answer to Google News in the form of a “News” tab, which provides a feed of stories based on your search results. Beens says the News tab is a response, of sorts, to the way personalized newsfeeds can predominantly surface ideas people agree with, thereby reinforcing their existing biases. Because Startpage isn’t collecting any data on users, its story selection—which comes from Microsoft’s Bing search engine instead of Google—is inherently more neutral.
“We feel it’s a great extension for our privacy search engine, and if people want to look at news that’s unbiased, and where they don’t get profiled, they can come to our website,” he says.
GOOGLE WITHOUT THE GOOGLINESS
Startpage wasn’t always focused on privacy. When it launched under the name Ixquick in 1998—the same year as Google—its goal was to provide a “meta” search engine that would combine results from various other contemporary search tools, such as Altavista, Lycos, Infoseek, and Yahoo. It was an interesting idea at the time, but it became less necessary as search engines like Google started to feel all-encompassing.
Ixquick survived the rise of Google, and in 2005, Beens says he had a privacy epiphany after examining the legal risks of collecting users’ search data. While it may seem obvious in hindsight, at the time, he hadn’t realized the extent to which the company was storing information that could be traced back to individual users (such as IP addresses) along with their history of searches and link clicks.
“If you have a constant stream of searches, and you’re able to connect that to one particular person . . . you get an insight into people’s lives that is really shocking,” he says.
Shortly after this revelation, Ixquick began pivoting to privacy. It stopped storing users’ search data in 2006, and it stopped logging IP addresses in 2009. It also made an unusual deal with Google, giving it access to Google search results under the condition that they not be combined with results from any other source, like the existing meta-search engine was doing. Startpage was initially a separate service, serving up Google search results without the privacy headaches, but in 2016, it subsumed Ixquick’s old meta-search product entirely.
“We did that because we feel everyone has the right to enjoy what we feel still are and have been the best search results in the world, and at the same time not be profiled and have no information being stored about that person,” Beens says.
Beens won’t get into specifics on Startpage’s deal with Google but says it came about partly because of “personal contacts” at the company, and partly because Google “appreciated the option for consumers” who wanted more privacy. In any case, this arrangement has since become unique among search engines. Although Google still offers an API that lets any developer access its search results, high costs and usage limits would make it impractical for an all-purpose search engine like Startpage.
Even so, Google hasn’t bothered to cut off Startpage yet. Beens says the companies have renewed their agreement every two to three years since 2006, and he’s not particularly worried that will change, especially as Google faces more scrutiny from regulators in Europe, where Startpage is based.
“I can’t say there’s no risk, because you don’t say that in life,” Beens says. “But as far as we know, they’re happy with the partnership, and they feel that we really offer something special to our audience, to people who are looking for a privacy search engine.”
THE UPS AND DOWNS OF A GOOGLE ALTERNATIVE
There is a catch to all of this: Although Startpage is technically getting its search results from Google, those results aren’t quite as good as the ones that appear on Google proper.
I’ve noticed, for instance, that Startpage doesn’t always get equal results from social media sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter, and if I search for a name in quotes along with a search term, Startpage can have far fewer results than Google does. Startpage also struggles with site-specific searches, so if I enter “site:fastcompany.com” along with some keywords to find one of my previous stories, it’s less likely to come up compared to the same search on Google.
Beens says he’s asked Google about these kinds of discrepancies in the past but has never received a clear answer.
“We don’t know what the strategy is on Google’s side with the slight differences that you noticed,” he says. “We do feel it’s a great feed, and we feel it’s better than any other feed.”
The other issue is the primitive nature of Startpage’s results page, which largely sticks to the “10 blue links” approach that search engines have been moving away from for years. While Google’s attempts to provide instant answers to certain queries can be heavy-handed—and, in some cases, problematic for publishers—Startpage swings too far in the other direction. It occasionally provides a little answer box next to its search results with an excerpt from Wikipedia, but that’s about it.
This is the area that Startpage seems most interested in improving, which helps explain why the company recently took on a significant outside investment from a Los Angeles-based advertising company called System1. Some privacy advocates have criticized the investment, noting that System1 is in the behavioral ad targeting business, and Startpage’s refusal to disclose the size of System1’s stake only added to the concern that the company might someday have to abandon its privacy principals.
In response, Beens says that System1 is merely trying to enact its own kind of privacy pivot, forming a subsidiary called PrivacyOne after witnessing the change in people’s attitudes about data collection. He also says Startpage has provisions in its agreement with System1 to ensure that the founders get to make all privacy-related decisions. The investment, he says, merely gives Startpage more resources to build features like the News tab. (The company is also working on a maps feature but hasn’t yet said how it’ll work or where the mapping data will come from.)
The resulting search engine may never be exactly like Google. But with a few more tabs and information panels for things like news, maps, and weather, maybe it’ll get close enough.
Google isn’t the only way to search online. Here are 7 services you should try instead
Google isn’t everything. Yes, it’s the most powerful search engine ever created. Yes, it processes 40,000 searches per second. And yes, Google is the go-to search engine for the majority of us.
Still, Google doesn’t know everything, and there are some resources that are actually better than Google at finding certain information. Some sites index streaming movies, others archive GIFs. Other search engines may not have the omniscience of Google, but they are far more committed to your privacy.
For those special searches, here are seven search sites you can use other than Google. These services cover a range of themes and needs, but you’re almost guaranteed to find one useful – and you might find yourself consulting it over and over. The best part: They’re basically all free.
1. Find streaming movies
The internet is overflowing with streaming services, and yet the question always comes up: What should we watch tonight? Sometimes we browse through the options, seeking a few favorite classics, or this year’s Oscar nominees, but we have to bounce from platform to platform just to find the title we’re looking for.
There’s a search engine that will do the work for you. It’s called JustWatch. This free website combs through streaming sites, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, HBO, YouTube, iTunes, Roku and Vudu, and it will show where a particular movie is available to stream (free or otherwise).
You can fine-tune and filter the results any way you like – by year, rating, price, genre, quality and age rating. This is extra useful if you’re wondering if a movie or TV show is something you can get for free on other streaming sites. JustWatch’s timeline shows you what’s new on any particular service at any given time. JustWatch isn’t limited to home streaming services. It can help you find all the latest theater movies, and give you summaries, show trailers and buy tickets.
A similar service is GoWatchIt, which boasts 2.5 million movies and 50,000 regular users. The page is attractive and easy to use, and like its rival, GoWatchIt uses your location to determine which content is available in your region.
2. Find GIFs for email and social media
The right GIF is worth a thousand words. Unlike a photo, a GIF is like a tiny video – an animation, a clip from a movie or a piece of news footage. GIFs often express an emotion or sentiment that no single photo or verbal comment can. Most of the time, GIFs are spit-take funny.
Social media services like Facebook and Twitter make GIFs easy to track down, but for the full catalog, Giphy is the place to go. The site is packed with easy-to-find GIFs: just enter your keyword in the search bar and zillions of GIFs pop up. Like any online search, broad topics are more fruitful than obscure ones; you’ll find plenty of GIFs for “balloon,” but few for “supernumerary.”
To share, click on the GIF that you want, find the “Copy link” button on the right pane, and choose the format. A short GIF link works best, because you can copy and paste the link to pretty much anywhere.
Even better, with Giphy’s iOS or Android app you can instantly share any GIF via text messaging, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter.
3. Search space images
No matter how old we get, the sky will always enthrall us, especially at night. This fascination led the U.S. government to create NASA in the 1950s, and to this day, the agency continues to shed light on outer space. But short of actually leaving Earth’s atmosphere, the best way to explore the cosmos is through online videos.
The NASA Image Library has pictures across 60 collections combined into one searchable database. This is convenient because you don’t have to hop from page to page just to zero in on what you’re looking for.
Whether you search for pictures of our solar system, far-off galaxies or the moon landings, you can browse through NASA images – and you can download the images for free, share them on social media sites or publish them for your purposes, as all this digital content is in the public domain.
4. Free software for coders and developers
Most people will not appreciate the glory of Libraries.io, but coders and software developers definitely will: The website lists thousands of pieces of open-source software. These packages and tools are free to the public, and you can use for them for any programming project. The site has a wide selection of package managers including WordPress, PyPi, Rubygems, Atom, and Platform IO.
A Libraries.io account also alerts you to software updates and sends notifications about incompatibility and dependency issues.
5. Make money using a search site
Microsoft developed its own search engine, Bing, as a direct competitor to Google. Nobody is going to pretend that Bing has the popularity or reach of Google, but the free service is still very powerful, and there is even an incentive to use it: Microsoft will pay and reward you for your web searches. Go to bing.com/rewards to sign up.
How does it work? The system is called Microsoft Rewards, which pays users in the form of Amazon, Starbucks, Burger King, Xbox, Microsoft Store, or other types of gift cards, as well as sweepstakes entries.
After signing up for a Microsoft account, sign into Bing using the account and begin searching to earn reward points. The system then tracks your points in the upper-right part of the screen, so you can keep track of your earnings while you do what you normally do anyway: search with Bing.
6. Private search engine
At first glance, StartPage.com looks a lot like Google. It has the same search field, and the same bolded and underlined websites pop up, arranged by relevance and popularity. You may not notice a difference, except for the color scheme and the absence of Google Doodles.
But StartPage is designed to retain your privacy. The engine doesn’t collect data, doesn’t keep tabs on your movements, and it isn’t owned by a gigantic corporation. The site is designed to retain privacy, yet it retains much of the power and ease of use than Google does.
If you like StartPage, you can open an account and use its free email service. This is a terrific option for people who use search engines for very basic research and are concerned about exposing their personal information.
7. Search without being tracked by Google
Similar to StartPage, the purpose of DuckDuckGo is to retain privacy. The company proudly abstains from targeted ads – though it does have sponsored ads in the first one or two search results that are relevant to your keywords. DuckDuckGo has a clean interface and deftly aggregates digital news. The “meanings” tab is a nice touch, as it helps analyze the significance of search terms