In the end, you can’t get around Google or Bing when searching the web. At least not if you don’t want to use either the Russian search engine Yandex or its Chinese counterpart Baidu. Because the four alternatives for searching the web presented here also more or less access services from these two search engines and their indexes.
A small company like DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, Qwant and Startpage cannot conjure up a web index like the one built up by Google and, to a lesser extent, Microsoft with Bing. What distinguishes them all from Google and Bing, however, is the effort to protect the user’s search data and not to store it, or at least not for the long term, so that it cannot be used to create a profile for personalized advertising or a personality profile based on search terms. However, DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, Startpage and Qwant also have advertising, because they are also financed by the advertising they display. The only thing is that this is not personalized, but is only generated based on the search terms and is therefore independent of the user.
Several Davids and one Goliath
Globally, Google search had a market share of about 79 percent on computers and about 89 percent on mobile devices as of December 2021, according to Statista. On the computer, Bing still comes in at just under 10 percent, but on mobile devices the share is only 0.64 percent. DuckDuckGo manages 0.6 percent worldwide for computers and 0.7 percent for mobile devices, for Ecosia the values are 0.11 percent and 0.06 percent. Neither Qwant nor Startpage appear as separate entries in the worldwide statistics, their market share is far too small. In Germany, according to Statcounter, the market share in December 2021 of DuckDuckGo and Ecosia among the computers was about 1.3 percent each. Google accounted for around 83 percent of search hits, Bing 11.5 percent. Among mobile users, Ecosia was at 0.8 percent and DuckDuckGo at 0.7 percent, with Bing just above at 0.8 percent. Google again took the lion’s share with 97 percent. There are also no separate figures for Germany for Startpage and Qwant.
Interestingly, according to the ranking site similarweb, 45 percent of Startpage’s traffic comes from Germany, while Qwant gets 56 percent of its traffic from France. Which is not surprising, however, since Qwant is a French company and is also used by most government institutions there. DuckDuckGo is mainly accessed from the USA, where 48 percent of traffic comes from, while Germany accounts for about 5.5 percent of search hits. With Ecosia the accesses distribute themselves more evenly. 23.5 percent from Germany, 22 percent from the U.S., 11 percent from France and 9 percent from the U.K.
The business models of the alternatives
DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, Qwant and Startpage have very different business models. The search engine with the duck is owned by Duck Duck Go, Inc., a private company founded by Gabriel Weinberg in the USA, who is also the CEO of the company. Figures about turnover and profit are not available. Revenue is generated through the non-personalized advertising displayed on the search page, which comes from Bing, as well as through revenue from a partnership (affiliate) with Amazon and eBay. If you buy a product via an ad from one of the two companies, DuckDuckGo receives a commission. DuckDuckGo donates a portion of its revenue to organizations that work to make the Internet as free as possible, such as Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and European Digital Rights. 2021 the company has donated a total of 1 million US dollars.
Ecosia is a limited liability company based in Berlin, 99 percent of whose capital and 1 percent of the voting rights belong to the Purpose Foundation. This voting right is associated with a veto from the foundation, which prevents any change in the main purpose of Ecosia. Ecosia is also not allowed to be sold for profit and no profits are allowed to be taken from it.
On the one hand, the revenue comes from advertising provided by search partner Bing, which is displayed on the search results page and clicked on by users. Second, Ecosia generates revenue when users make purchases from Ecosia’s partner companies (affiliates), which are linked on the Ecosia page. Then Ecosia gets each a small share of the revenue. Ecosia publishes a monthly financial report on its income and expenses. Ecosia invests the majority of its profits in tree planting projects around the world, in cooperation with local initiatives. It is also investing in other projects such as solar panels and organic farming. From January to November 2021 inclusive, revenues were approximately 25 million euros, of which approximately 44 percent went to tree planting projects.
Qwant is a French company based in Paris that was founded in 2011 and then launched the search site in 2013. The company also generates its revenue through non-personalized advertising, which, like DuckDuckGo and Ecosia, comes from Bing, and has also gone through several rounds of funding over the years. The largest shareholders are the French financing bank Caisse des depôts et consignations and the Axel Springer publishing house. After posting losses in both 2019 and 2020, the company is currently restructuring and plans to refocus on its core search business in the future. A further round of investment is also planned to raise additional funds, mainly to expand the business outside France.
Startpage is the search site of the Dutch company Startpage BV, based in the Netherlands. Startpage has been active since 2006 and is financed by non-personalized advertising on the search results page, which comes from Google, and says it is profitable. In 2019, the American company System1 invested in Startpage through its subsidiary Privacy One Group and acquired a majority stake. System1 is a marketing platform whose subsidiaries, in addition to Startpage, include MapQuest, the search site Info.com and the browser Waterfox. However, Startpage says it will remain a Dutch company with a Dutch CEO and will continue to manage all servers through which contact with users is made.
Here’s how the search engines work
None of the four search sites stands completely on its own feet as far as searching the web is concerned. DuckDuckGo says it gets its search results from 400 different sources. The search site takes information from Trip Advisor, StackOverflow and of course Wikipedia, among others. In addition, DuckDuckGo accesses Bing, Yahoo and Yandex and maintains its own web crawler, DuckDuckBot. Bing also provides the ads that appear on the search results page, matching the search term in each case. For the maps DuckDuckGo uses Apple’s Mapkit-JS-Framework.
Ecosia obtains its search results exclusively from Bing, as well as the non-personalized advertising, and has concluded a cooperation agreement with Microsoft for this purpose. For the maps Ecosia uses Google Maps, own maps are available only in a rudimentary beta version, with which not much can be done yet. A special option is Treeday, through which one can find green companies or products matching the search term. As with Google Maps, however, this leaves Ecosia and its privacy. Ecosia’s own servers, which are used to connect with users, are operated in a climate-neutral manner, according to the company.
Qwant uses a mixture of its own search engine and the search of Bing. According to the company, the index of Bing is accessed, but the ranking of the search results is created by Qwant itself. Qwant also operates its own web crawler to create its own index. For the maps Qwant uses Open Streetmap. Qwant, on the one hand, operates its own servers in France, which are responsible for contact with users and running the web crawler, among other things, while Microsoft’s Azure Cloud is used for other things, such as calculating the trust score of websites.
Startpage relies exclusively on Google for its search, Startpage has a cooperation agreement with the company. All search results as well as the ranking come from Google’s index. In addition, there are instant answers, including content from Wikipedia or about the weather. Startpage’s own servers, located in both Europe and the U.S., are responsible for interacting with users. There is no map function on Startpage so far.
Privacy at DuckDuckGo
DuckDuckGo states that the data sent when accessing the search page, such as IP address and user agent, is never stored. This way, no user profile can be created based on the search terms, as there is no stored user information to link them to, and nothing has to be anonymized either. As a user, of course, this cannot be verified directly. What can be checked, however, is that no cookies are stored on the computer when searching with DuckDuckGo, and no data is stored in the library under "Safari>" LocalStorage". An exception to this rule: If you change the settings on the search page, they are stored in an anonymized cookie. Alternatively, the settings can also be stored anonymously as a URL and protected with a password on the network. Another possibility of anonymization: In the settings on the search page, the transmission of the search terms to the server can be switched from GET to POST. Then the search terms are not transmitted together with the URL and thus do not end up in the log files and in the cache of the server. The disadvantage is that a search cannot be saved as a bookmark. We notice that this only works with both Safari and Firefox if you use the search box on the search page and not the browser’s search box.
Privacy at Ecosia
Ecosia stores the search queries together with the IP address and other user information on its servers. After seven days, the personal information is then deleted from the search queries. Before the search terms are forwarded to Bing, the IP address is anonymized, but the user agent, language and country settings are transmitted. Unlike the other search sites, Ecosia always places cookies on the computer, as well as data under "LocalStorage" of Safari. What is also noticeable: Safari complains about a tracker from Bing on the search page of Ecosia. It is not clear to what extent this is related to the personalized search results that Ecosia offers in the search page settings, since this option is disabled by default. Firefox does not complain about a tracker. There is no setting option for the transmission of the search terms (GET or POST) as with DuckDuckGo.
Privacy at Qwant
Privacy at Startpage
The search pages – this is what they output
The results pages of the four search providers are quite similar in structure, with Startpage being the most spartan. First the ads are listed, which are clearly marked, and then the search results. The number of ads on the page varies depending on the search term. At the top right of the page, if data is available, a box appears with quick answers, usually taken from Wikipedia. Qwant sometimes shows current news at this point, or only related searches, and Startpage nothing at all. At the top of the page there is a bar for all pages, which can be used to switch between "All" or "Web", images, videos and news. DuckDuckGo has another section for shopping. Then offers for the searched product are displayed as well as some selection criteria such as the price or certain suppliers. For maps there is a section at DuckDuckGo and Qwant. If one has searched for a place, one can thus display a map directly on the search page without having to switch to another web page. Maps are also available at Ecosia, here you are redirected to Google Maps so far. In addition, there are options on each page, for example, to narrow down the time frame of the search. With Startpage and Qwant you can also select search regions, with DuckDuckGo you can only choose between Everywhere and Germany.