Privacy vs. personalization, and how private search engines protect your data
Search engines have evolved from basic keyword-matching tools to platforms with massive databases that use complex algorithms to deliver results. Today, most major search engines also use tracking data—your data—to make those algorithms more effective. This allows them to “personalize” search results and ads just for you. But not all search engines work this way: A new breed of options aims to deliver high-quality results while still protecting your privacy.
In this article: an intro to private search engines. How they work, the options available, and how to switch away from Big Tech search engines.
What’s a private search engine?
“Privacy” can mean different things, but in general a private search engine minimizes the amount of data that’s collected from users, and thus used for targeted advertising or other personalization. Usually a private search engine is contrasted against traditional providers like Google, which suck up user data and enable the broader surveillance economy.
Consider, for example, how Google accounts work. If you’re logged into a Google account while using Google services (e.g. Gmail, YouTube, or Google Search), your activity is recorded across all those sites, and associated directly with your account. This data is then used to personalize the search results you get and the ads you see.
Of course, even private search engines need some essential data about your device and browser in order to function (i.e. to display pages correctly and in your language). A search engine might check your IP address to display local results (and use your local language). It also may check if you’re using a phone versus a computer, to ensure results appear correctly on your device’s screen. But with a private search engine, this data won’t leave your device, and won’t be associated with you personally.
A truly private search engine doesn’t have to make promises about being careful with your personal data: your data isn’t collected in the first place. A subtle but important distinction.
How do private search engines work, and how do they differ?
Private search engines work much like Google, but with added privacy features. While each private option will have broadly similar goals, they’ll differ based on:
- Which search index they use
- How their ranking algorithms work
- How search queries are handled and safeguarded (if the provider isn’t using their own index)
- What types of data they block or anonymize
How private search engines use search indexes
All search engines rely on a search index—a massive database of billions of sites and pages available on the Web. When you enter a query into Google (for example), the engine pulls pages from its index and ranks those pages based on a variety of factors like keyword relevance, recency, and more. Non-private engines will also rank based on your previous search and browsing data. In any case, all search engines need an index.
However, there are only a handful of independent search indexes—for the most part, it’s just Google, Bing, and Brave Search. Even most private options rely on other engines to run. DuckDuckGo and Neeva, for example, do not have their own index—they rely entirely on Microsoft Bing. Brave Search, meanwhile, has its own index.
Every index is different, so your search results will vary depending on the core index behind the engine. A secondary provider like DuckDuckGo may show the same results found in the index that powers it (in this case Bing).
But this independence also matters for privacy. Since some search engines are optimized to collect data and sell ads, private options atop these engines have to go through a complex engineering project of removing the tools for that collection. There’s a big difference between an engine that’s private from the ground up, versus one that tries to block the tracking and data collection after-the-fact.
How private search engines use ranking algorithms
If a major search index has built-in manipulation, flaws, or biases, those issues will trickle down to the secondary engine as well.
Contrast that with an option like Brave Search, which is built on an independent index of the Web. Brave leverages anonymous community feedback and alternative ranking models to combat bias. More than 93% of Brave Search’s results come from its independent index of the Web. The remaining results are sourced from anonymous checks of other third-party search engines for the same query.
How private search engines handle search queries
With an independent index, it’s easier to control how search queries are handled: The engine and the index are powered by the same company. But when a private search engine uses a Big Tech index, your search query is passed to a third party. That means engineering a complicated security layer to ensure your data stays private in transit.
These extra steps can include things like query encryption, removal of trackers and cookies, and proxy mechanisms to obscure or anonymize your searches. In this scenario, the private search engine acts like an intermediary between you and the source search index, carefully (hopefully) “handling” your search query in an attempt to keep it private.
This should be enough to stop a major search index from tracking you, but it’s an ongoing battle to stay one step ahead of Big Tech.
The top private search engines: Which one is right for you?
There are many private search engines that offer alternatives to Big Tech providers like Google. Note that some private search engines are more private than others—each offering its own balance of privacy and accuracy. While no private search engine should track your searches or collect your data, some take even more steps to protect your privacy.
In general, a truly private search engine will:
- Let you search anonymously
- Block cookies and other trackers
- Use its own index so there’s no baton-passing of data
- Not record or store any personal user data
Once you’ve considered the level of privacy you’re looking for, check out our list of the top 10 private search engines.
A fresh approach to searching the Web
While traditional search engines have looked, felt, and operated roughly the same way for the last ~15 years, some private search engines offer a unique benefit: innovation. Instead of focusing on tracking users and collecting data, some private search engines instead focus on creating great new features.
This includes the biggest differentiator—championing true privacy—in addition to other creative search tools. Brave Search, for example, has implemented a new AI-powered Summarizer, a custom re-ranking tool (Goggles), convenient Website search shortcuts (Bangs), search-results page Discussions, and more.
If you’re looking for an exciting new option to keep your data free from Big Tech, and to try new tools and features that offer a whole new way to search the Web, try Brave Search today.
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