“Advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results,” Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, argued in a research paper when they were still working out of their Stanford dorm rooms.
Today, Google is synonymous with the web — but it’s also far from the sort of “competitive and transparent” search engine Brin and Page set out to develop decades ago. Google’s journey into the dictionary and becoming a trillion-dollar empire demanded a slate of fatal modifications to its original blueprint. The result is a search engine that buries organic links under an avalanche of ads, keeps tabs on its visitors’ every move and click, and manipulates results by tapping into the giant pool of data Google harvests from the rest of its services.
An emerging roster of competitors thinks it can offer you a better deal. Their search engines vow not to track you or even show ads if you’re willing to shell out a couple of bucks. Can they save us from Google’s invasive and monopolistic rule, or are they doomed to fizzle out after fighting fruitlessly against an unstoppable behemoth?
Josep Pujol, the chief of search at Brave browser, calls Google the web’s “toll-booth” where “producers of information have to abide by certain rules or directly pay to be reachable.”
Google may appear simply as one cog in the larger internet machine, but it has more sway than you’d think. For most people, it’s the main avenue through which they access information online, and if something can’t be found via Google, it practically doesn’t exist. Therefore, having only one (or two) ways to access the web is very problematic, Pujol adds.
The startup behind Brave browser, which now hosts about 34 million users, rolled out its search engine a few weeks ago. Unlike Google, it doesn’t profile users and claims it won’t use any “secret methods or algorithms to bias results.”
Brave is indexing the web’s trenches from scratch, which means it ultimately won’t rely on aggregators like Bing and attempts to be everything Google is not. It’s private, offers you more control over how anonymous you want to be while searching, and most importantly, it doesn’t have a vested interest in showing you ads.
While Brave plans to offer both ad-supported and ad-free premium subscriptions, Neeva, a new private search engine from a pair of ex-Googlers, believes as soon as advertisements enter the picture, the focus shifts away from the user and to figuring out how to “squeeze an additional dollar out of another click” for advertisers.
Neeva’s CEO and co-founder, Sridhar Ramaswamy, who previously spearheaded Google’s crown jewel (its $115 billion advertising arm) for over a decade, says, in a way, people are already paying for search engines like Google — by letting them siphon up their personal data, settling for a “bad user experience with wall-to-wall ads, and substandard content.”
Neeva, therefore, has an upfront $5 monthly fee, and in exchange, it gets you a private, ad-free search engine that can also surface your information from third-party apps like Gmail, Dropbox, and Microsoft Office 365.
Although Neeva could potentially shape up to be a compelling, ad-free alternative for those who can afford it, experts say its success and the underlying pay-for-privacy model, in general, present a difficult socioeconomic problem.
“If it’s necessary to pay for privacy,” Dr. Shomir Wilson, the director of the Human Language Technologies Lab at Penn State, said to Digital Trends, “then it becomes a luxury that not everyone can afford.”
Neeva and Brave aren’t the first ones to challenge Google, however, and there’s a good reason why it’s been nearly impossible for competitors like Bing to even put a dent in its monopoly. Google controls over 90% of the search engine market, and going up against its swathes of resources has been an uphill battle for newcomers offering alternatives. It has accomplished that by practically starving its opponents of any room to grow.
Google pays platform owners such as Apple, Mozilla, and others billions of dollars to be the default search engine on the most popular operating systems and browsers, including Macs, iPhones, Android phones, and Google Chrome. And there’s little chance users of these platforms will go out of their way to switch search engines, let alone be even aware of choices.
“We build durable habits around search engines,” Dr. Wilson said. “Once a search engine is familiar and useful, going back to the one we like can be kind of reflexive.”
But as awareness for privacy-first products soars among people and Big Tech faces its greatest antitrust battle, Kamyl Bazbaz, vice president of communications at DuckDuckGo, a private search engine that has been up at arms with Google since 2008, is hopeful that the tides are turning.
DuckDuckGo has witnessed unprecedented growth over the past year, and its active users have doubled from 50 million to 100 million. It’s also now the second most used search engine on phones in several countries, including the United States. In addition to a search engine, DuckDuckGo offers tools to protect your identity from third-party trackers and other malicious online practices.
Cooper Quintin, a senior security researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agrees breaking Google’s default power is key for competitors to thrive, but it would take “strong action on behalf of the government to actually enforce such antitrust laws.”
Luckily for Neeva, Brave, DuckDuckGo, and rest, the Justice Department — along with eleven state Attorneys General — has sued Google on those exact grounds.
“Google’s control of search access points,” the antitrust lawsuit says, “means that new search models are denied the tools to become true rivals: Effective paths to market and access, at scale, to consumers, advertisers, or data.”
If history is any indication, the odds are against Google. Last year, the search engine giant lost a similar suit in Europe and now allows Android users to pick their default search engine at startup instead of making that choice for them.
Whatever the outcome of these lawsuits may be, Google’s rivals have a long way ahead of them before they even have a chance at threatening its search engine monopoly, and they realize that.
In the meantime, though, Pujol says Brave is focusing on what it can do, which is building an alternative. “We are crazy or bold enough to try because we know there’s a demand out there.”