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The best private search engines for secure browsing

If you’re like 80% of people, you probably used Google the last time you needed to search for something online. Google offers so many apps and services that it has become almost irreplaceable. But with each of those tools tracking your every move, you’re giving up more control of your life than ever before. You can replace Google’s signature search engine with a truly private search engine, and there are plenty of alternatives to choose from.

The best private search engines for secure browsing

Why should you use a private search engine?

Popular search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing collect a lot of data about you – your IP address, user agent, a unique identifier (stored in browser cookies), and your search terms. It helps these companies to understand your ‘user behavior’, serve you targeted ads, and even track you. In fact, EU GDPR laws and regulations identify metadata and your IP address as personally identifiable. To be GDPR compliant, these companies would either have to let you not disclose this digital data or be transparent about its collection.

To see what data is collected about you (and possibly to get rid of it), you will have to dig pretty deep. In most cases, you can’t even be 100% sure that they’ll actually delete it. However, you can still do everything that’s in your power and delete your Google history.

Why should you switch to private search engines

Even when you use a VPN, search engines still sometimes collect data and update your user profile. It happens when you are connected to your Google account and use Google search at the same time. Therefore, you might want to use a private search engine with a VPN for increased privacy.

The best private search engines

Popular search engines are so ingrained in our systems that we rarely think about alternatives. However, those alternatives can provide excellent privacy while still delivering great search results. Here is our list of the 12 most popular and trustworthy private search engines to choose from:

1. Startpage

Startpage is one of the best alternatives to Google due to its high-quality search results and commitment to user privacy.

Startpage offers search results that are comparable to Google’s, while maintaining a strict policy of not collecting any personal data or IP addresses. This means that users can enjoy highly relevant search results without compromising their personal data or location.

One of Startpage’s standout features is its Anonymous View mode. When accessing search results through Startpage, the Anonymous View feature acts as a protective shield, preventing websites from tracking users. Additionally, the private search engine offers instant answer tools like weather updates, translations, stock trackers, and a currency converter.

Startpage was founded in The Netherlands and is now owned by a US company, System1. Overall, Startpage is a reliable private search engine, providing top-quality search results and innovative features to safeguard user privacy.

2. DuckDuckGo

If you’ve ever looked for a private search engine, you probably came across DuckDuckGo. This search engine is a popular choice, and it serves around 10 million searches a day. Its results are generated from over 400 sources including Wikipedia, Bing, Yandex, and Yahoo.

DuckDuckGo offers extra features such as !bang, which allows users to search other websites such as Amazon, Wikipedia or Yahoo directly. Simply type an exclamation mark in front of your query. You can also install the DuckDuckGo extension on Chrome and see how ‘private’ the websites you visit actually are.

Sounds like the perfect private browser? Well…not quite. In 2022, news broke that DuckDuckGo had given Microsoft permission to track users through certain platforms, including LinkedIn and Bing. This is apparently an unavoidable stipulation of a deal DuckDuckGo has with Microsoft, which facilitates some of their advertising infrastructure.

According to a statement by DuckDuckGo, these trackers cannot be tied to a specific user profile, meaning that their privacy claims are still technically accurate. However, it’s the lack of transparency about this that has troubled many. For a company that places so much emphasis on personal privacy, the information should really have been made public sooner.

How is DuckDuckGo different from a VPN?

DuckDuckGo and a VPN service provide different levels of anonymity and should be used together to guard your privacy. When you use most search engines, the keywords you use are shared with the website you visit. If you log in, that website will also automatically receive other personally identifiable information such as your IP address, your device model, etc. DuckDuckGo considers this to be data leakage and protects you from it. A VPN complements this protection by hiding your IP address, encrypting your traffic, and, in NordVPN’s case, scouring your traffic for malware.

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3. Qwant

This France-based search engine has higher privacy measures than its U.S. competitors because it has to meet European data and privacy laws. You can be certain that it doesn’t record any user information non-consensually and has no data to use for advertising.

Qwant has also promised to keep its users from getting stuck in the ‘filter bubble,’ which is when users get search results based on their behavioral profiles and never see information contradicting their views.

It’s also a user-friendly engine, that categorizes your search results by “Web,” “News,” and “Social media.” Its homepage includes news, trending people, events, and other interesting stories.

To make browsing easier, Qwant also introduced a similar feature to DuckDuckGo’s !bang. Its users can type ‘&’ or ‘!’ followed by the name of their favorite website. It’ll then search only that website for the best results.

4. Searx

Searx is a free, privacy-focused metasearch engine. It doesn’t share users’ IP addresses and search history with the search engines it uses. Searx also blocks cookies and protects against tracking HTTPS headers, pixels, and malicious scripts. Moreover, it prevents search result filtering according to your search habits, so it is very handy if you want to minimize third-party tracking.

Searx doesn’t use tracked redirect links that Google uses. Also, by using cached and proxied links, it allows you to view websites without visiting them. This way, you can avoid accidentally stumbling upon malicious websites.

5. SearchEncrypt

SearchEncrypt uses local encryption with Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS). This means that if your private key gets compromised, your session key stays safe and so does your data. This search engine retrieves results from a network of search partners and deletes your search terms once you are done browsing. SearchEncrypt offers better default privacy than the more popular DuckDuckGo.

You can also use SearchEncrypt to search for news, find maps, or browse for privacy-friendly videos (you can watch them directly on the search engine with no annoying ads). It is available as Google Chrome extension, too.

6. Gibiru

If you are looking for a fast and reliable search engine, Gibiru is an excellent choice too. It’s an encrypted search engine that uses Google’s algorithm to provide you with search results swiftly and minus all the tracking. It’s what Google was before Google ads.

Despite using Google’s algorithm, Gibiru opposes this popular search engine and says that their search engine is:

“faster than the NSA Search Engines since it does not install all sorts of personalization and tracking cookies on your system.”

7. Ecosia

Ecosia protects not only its users’ privacy but also forests across the globe. It’s an ecologically-minded browser that donates 80% of its profits to reforestation organizations. The company behind it is CO2-negative and identifies itself as a social business.

In terms of functionality, Ecosia offers an encrypted search without user data storage or selling. It doesn’t profile its users according to their searching patterns nor uses any external tracking tools. Ecosia generates income by showing non-intrusive ads next to the search results.

It seems that such an approach really works, as Ecosia currently has 15,000,000 users and has already planted more than 131 million trees.

8. Swisscows

If you want a private and family-friendly browser, Swisscows is a good option. It doesn’t store your data and removes explicit search results, providing a safer search experience for the younger members of your family. It also uses artificial intelligence to determine the context of the user’s query, which could potentially provide more accurate results.

9. Mojeek

Mojeek is a crawler-based search engine that doesn’t rely on any external search engines. By crawling the web, it creates its own index of websites, which it then uses for providing search results. So, you have entirely independent and unbiased results not relying on any external algorithms.

Although its index size is considerably smaller than Google’s, Mojeek provides a rare opportunity to see the web without any filters. Similarly to Ecosia, it is ecologically-conscious and hosts its servers in one of the UK’s greenest data centers, Custodian. Another interesting feature Mojeek offers is a search based on your emotions, which you can choose from a list.

10. MetaGer

MetaGer relies on around 50 search engines to provide its extensive search results. It uses 24 web crawlers for data gathering. Privacy is also an important feature MetaGer offers as it encrypts all the connections to its services. Moreover, MetaGer is available on the Tor network, so you can open its search results anonymously.

Disconnect Search was created by ex-Google and ex-NSA engineers. It works as an extension and allows you to use Yahoo, Bing, and Google services without tracking, meaning you can remain private while using mainstream search engines.

Disconnect works a bit similarly to VPN — it routes all your search-related traffic via remote servers, so search engines think it comes from Disconnect servers rather than an individual user. This means that search engines can’t pass keywords to the sites visited from search results. Disconnect also encrypts all your queries and doesn’t store any user data. However, while Disconnect can protect you from web company tracking, it most likely won’t protect you from government snooping.

Are private search engines really private?

The privacy of the search engine depends on its business model. Non-private search engines get revenue from sharing your data with third-parties and by using ad targeting.

Private search engines do not track you and gather your data. They provide you with more objective results unaffected by their marketing strategies and minimize your digital footprint.

How do private search engines make money?

The short answer is that it depends on the search engine. Some, like Searx, are donation-supported non-profits. Another popular strategy is contextual advertising, where users are targeted by advertisements based exclusively on the search terms they entered. Some will even use affiliate link programs, where they receive affiliate payments for purchases made by users who find products using their search engines.

Does incognito or private mode help?

No, incognito or private mode don’t help much. Websites, search engines, and internet service providers can still see your activity. Your browser just doesn’t store your current session’s browsing history (and perhaps other things like cookies, depending on your browser), but only until you close it.

How do I search privately on Google?

To make your Google browsing more private, consider these steps:

  • Do not forget to delete your search history or disallow Google to store it.
  • Sign out of your Google account while browsing. This will make it harder to connect your search history to your identity.
  • Turn on incognito mode for an additional layer of protection.
  • Use a private browser for surfing the web.

Also, use a VPN. It won’t directly protect you from Google tracking, but it will encrypt your traffic and your service providers won’t be able to track you. Check NordVPN’s latest deals for the best experience.

How to choose the best search engine for privacy

All of the search engines mentioned above are great if you are concerned about your privacy. You might also consider using an AI search engine and choose one focusing on user’s privacy. The choice is up to you and what’s most important for you. In most cases, stronger privacy means giving up certain features, so where you draw that line is up to you to decide. The next time you search for something online – try one of these private search engines instead.