Ranked: Best (and worst) search engines for privacy in 2021

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Depending on which search engine you’re using, you could be putting your personal data up for sale. That’s because some search engines make money by tracking searches in order to target you with ads they think you’ll be interested in. When you click on those ads, the search engine makes money.

ExpressVPN has evaluated 11 major search engines based on how invasive they are to your privacy. Six stood out as privacy menaces, while the other five proved to be safer bets. The evaluation is based on each search engine’s privacy policy, the presence of ads, and additional privacy-focused services.

The contenders

Best (and worst) search engines for privacy in 2021

10. Ask
9. Lycos
8. Google
7. Bing
6. Yahoo and AOL
5. Mojeek
4. Ecosia
3. StartPage
2. Qwant
1. DuckDuckGo

10. Ask

Ask logo.

Scope of data collection: Large

Ads: Yes

Noteworthy characteristics: Its search toolbar is often bundled with other software, which can be hard to get rid of

Ask—known as Ask Jeeves in another life—has grappled with its identity during its 25-year existence. Sometimes a question and answer site, sometimes pure search, it has lately slunk to the back of the pack in terms of volume.

What makes Ask worrying is its occasional role as a “browser hijacker.” Sometimes when you download an application from the internet, it will bundle in a “helpful” Ask search toolbar which you’ll install because you didn’t read the conditions when you were blindly clicking “Accept, Accept, Accept…” The result: Ask becomes your automatic search engine on all your browsers.

Even if such practices aren’t malware per se, they can still be pretty annoying, especially given all the data Ask can suddenly get its hands on.

In 2020, Google accused IAC—parent company of Ask.com—of browser hijacking, specifically that IAC-owned extensions on the Google Play store were not delivering on advertised features. Often, it was found that IAC extensions would change a user’s default search engine from Google and route search queries through the IAC-owned search engine MyWay.

9. Lycos

Lycos logo.

Scope of data collection: Large

Ads: Yes

Noteworthy characteristics: It’s still around

Lycos has gone through many iterations since the dot-com bubble and even tried to spin off a brand of wearables back in 2015. It didn’t work.

Like other search engines on the naughty list, Lycos harvests a lot of data, including your IP, browser, and platform. It makes a point of saying that it collects “aggregate search terms,” which at least suggests that individual searches are not tied to your IP (hopefully).

8. Google

Google logo.

Scope of data collection: Enormous (don’t forget, Google follows you on YouTube)

Ads: Yes

Noteworthy characteristics: It probably knows everything about you 

Google may be the most popular search engine around—as of mid 2021, it accounts for over 85% of global internet searches—but it’s a terrible choice when it comes to privacy.

As the search engine’s privacy policy informs visitors, Google tracks just about everything, including your search queries, your IP address, your phone number, your hardware settings—and more!

According to Google, all of this data collection is done for the benefit of users:

We collect information to provide better services to all of our users – from figuring out basic stuff like which language you speak, to more complex things like which ads you’ll find most useful, the people who matter most to you online, or which YouTube videos you might like.

If that degree of intrusiveness makes you queasy, though, fear not: You can always attempt to make Google forget about you. You can also prevent Google from knowing your location data in the future by using a VPN extension on Chrome. Think you’re safe in Incognito mode? Think again.

Once you clear your slate, you might also want to check out one of the search engine options on the Nice List.

Read more: Explainer: $5bn lawsuit against Google over Incognito mode

7. Bing

Bing logo.

Scope of data collection: Large

Ads: Yes

Noteworthy characteristics: It knows almost as much about you as Google does

The second most popular search engine in the U.S. (partially because it “powers” a variety of search engines under different brands), Bing also records your search queries and other relevant information. However, because it is not integrated with as many popular platforms as Google (like YouTube), it could be seen as slightly less intrusive.

That still isn’t saying much. A visit to Bing’s privacy page paints a detailed picture of all the lovely things you share when you do a search:

…we combine data we collect from different contexts (for example, from your use of two Microsoft products) or obtain from third parties to give you a more seamless, consistent, and personalized experience, to make informed business decisions, and for other legitimate purposes.

All in all, that’s some fairly identifiable non-identifiable information.

6. Yahoo

Yahoo logo.

Scope of data collection: Large

Ads: Yes

Noteworthy characteristics: Its affiliated email system was recently hacked

Things have not been good for Yahoo lately, what with the disclosure that some 3 billion Yahoo Mail accounts were breached. That event alone turned many privacy-minded individuals away from the company.

Yahoo’s search engine isn’t anything to write home about (it’s “powered by Bing”), but it does have an ad interest manager that lets you stop Yahoo from tailoring the ads you see. It doesn’t stop ads from appearing altogether, but it at least makes the browsing experience slightly less stalkerish.

AOL

AOL logo.

Scope of data collection: Large

Ads: Yes

Noteworthy characteristics: Filled with nostalgia for anyone who went online in the ’90s

AOL—often stylized as Aol.—is similar to Yahoo in that it is “powered by Bing.” It’s also similar to its purple competitor in that it faced a privacy scandal of its own: In 2006, the company published the search histories of 650,000 users.

As of 2021, AOL and Yahoo have become companies under Apollo Global Management. AOL currently shares Yahoo’s privacy policy.

5. Mojeek

Mojeek logo.

Scope of data collection: Minimal—i.e., operational, non-personal data

Ads: Yes

Noteworthy characteristics: Relies on its own page index instead of those provided by other search engines

UK-based Mojeek positions itself as an “alternative search engine.” Mojeek has been specifically built from the ground up with a focus on privacy, independent results, and environmentally friendly servers. 

Mojeek’s privacy policy states that it doesn’t: use cookies by default (but will seek user permission where required); implement identifiable user tracking (i.e., collected user data only pertains to operations); outsource any of its development to ensure that nothing is compromised.

4. Ecosia

Ecosia logo.

Scope of data collection: Minimal—i.e., operational, non-personal data

Ads: Yes

Noteworthy characteristics: Environmentally friendly and focused on sustainability

Launched in 2009, Ecosia is a search engine developed by Ecosia GmbH—an environmentally forward company that donates 80% to causes that support reforestation. When someone uses Ecosia to search the web, income generated from search ads go directly into planting trees. To date, Ecosia has helped plant over 134 million trees.

According to their privacy policy, Ecosia only collects analytical and operational data, and has taken significant steps to ensure that a user’s privacy is protected. This includes anonymizing IP addresses, encrypting all data transfers, and only keeping completely anonymized search data after a seven-day period. 

3. Startpage

Startpage logo.

Scope of data collection: Minimal—i.e., operational, non-personal data

Ads: Yes

Noteworthy characteristics: The performance of Google without the privacy infringement

Startpage began life as an offshoot of Ixquick, a privacy-forward metasearch engine founded in 1998. Ixquick was notable for providing users with the option to open search results in a proxy window, thus allowing them to view pages anonymously. Ixquick took a reassuring approach to privacy by deleting all user data post search.

StartPage is an offshoot of Ixquick that queries Google, basically acting as a go-between. That means you get all the power of a Google search minus the disclosure of your personal information. The only downside is that you still get ads, but at least they aren’t aimed at you based on your behavior.

Ixquick was absorbed into Startpage in 2016.

2. Qwant

Qwant logo.

Scope of data collection: Minimal—i.e., operational, non-personal data

Ads: Yes

Noteworthy characteristics: The performance of Google without the privacy infringement

Since its launch in 2013, Qwant has made a name for itself as a proponent of personal privacy. By choosing to not collect personal data nor analyze a user’s search history, Qwant’s aim is to provide the exact same search results no matter who is making the search query. 

As a French-based company, Qwant is subject to privacy standards in compliance with the GDPR. However, through a partnership with Microsoft, Qwant routes some search traffic through Microsoft servers.

Qwant’s privacy policy outlines the full extent to which they collect non-personal data, in addition to providing avenues for users to request what data is being used from their searches. Users also have the right to delete fully their accounts and any trace of them left behind in the course of operating Qwant search services.

1. DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo logo.

Scope of data collection: Minimal—i.e., operational, non-personal data

Ads: No

Noteworthy characteristics: It offers a Tor service

https://duckduckgogg42xjoc72x3sjasowoarfbgcmvfimaftt6twagswzczad.onion/

ExpressVPN previously reviewed DuckDuckGo and loved it. It doesn’t collect your IP address or other information, but it does record searches—it just aggregates them without affiliating them with other data.

DuckDuckGo is also unique in that it offers an onion service. This characteristic, along with its speed, makes it a top pick.

Of course, DuckDuckGo’s algorithm opts for the crowd-sourced over the corporate. A search on the current U.S. presidential election in the “News” category brought up Wikipedia articles as the top two hits, so be sure to look further down the list if you want more variety.

Read more: DuckDuckGo at 10: Looking ahead with CEO Gabriel Weinburg

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