For years, the internet has been dominated by the all-seeing Google. Google has been so successful in its execution and protection of its brand that we culturally understand that to “Google” something is to conduct an internet search, despite the existence of alternative search engines.
Google holds a massive advantage over all other search engines. More than 88% of all web searches are conducted through Google while the second-largest web browser, Bing, claims not quite 6% of all web searches. While alternative search services have existed for years (such as DuckDuckGo, Ask, and Startpage), only two English language indexes exist – Google’s and Bing’s. Most of the familiar search “alternatives” pull from those two datasets.
Alternative search engines, then, aren’t all that alternative. Really, the only advantage to using an alternative search engine is privacy. But as far as search results go, you will end up with a very similar search no matter the engine you choose.
Now, a new search engine has appeared, offering a game-changing alternative.
Before introducing you to this up-and-coming competitor, it is important to understand why Google’s monopoly is such a big deal, and why the introduction of a true search engine alternative is essential for the free exchange of ideas.
Why is Google’s Monopoly a Problem?
“What’s the big deal?” some might ask. “Google’s reaping the rewards of a great product.”
As it turns out, Google’s monopoly is a very big deal because it affects the free exchange of ideas in the public square and our electoral process.
“The control our search engines have over us is very sneaky,” says Nathan Jacobson, web developer and designer at the Discovery Institute. “It’s not obvious. When you go to The New York Times, you know the editors have chosen a certain set of subjects to cover, articles to share, they’ve selected certain writers to employ, so it’s kind of understood that you’re getting an intentional experience. The information that’s being fed to you is not all the information. It’s a carefully selected subset of information.”
In other words, the common assumption is that Google is a neutral library of information when in reality, it’s just as much a curator of information as The New York Times.
“It’s not even that self-consciously wicked or duplicitous,” Jacobson explains, “it’s just that if you come from a certain point of view you’re going to evaluate certain sources of information as more credible and authoritative and favor those in your search results.”
If you think of the traditional idea of the public square, Google acts as a type of moderator, allowing some voices to speak louder and longer than others. Unfortunately, due to the biased nature of human beings, this leads to biased outcomes in our search results.
Take, for instance, research conducted by psychologist Robert Epstein:
Research psychologist Robert Epstein began studying what he termed the “search engine manipulation effect” back in 2014. It had to do with the placement of news articles and other links returned to users in a Google Search query. Because Google Search had become so efficient (the algorithms again) and the site itself so widely used, Google’s customers had come to expect that the higher an item appeared on the list of search results, the more relevant and trustworthy that item must be. Epstein found as early as 2014 that he could alter the choice of undecided voters in an election by perhaps more than 12 percent simply by manipulating the order of the search results – a swing that could determine a close contest.Josh Hawley, The Tyranny of Big Tech, page 100
Epstein conducted extensive studies of these Google Search queries during the 2016 presidential election. “What he found was pronounced search bias on Google in favor of Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton.” He estimated that Google’s algorithm “likely nudged 2.6 million undecided voters toward Hilary Clinton.”
Moreover, such curation is a threat to the exchange of competing ideas. Overwhelmingly, Google users only ever see the first set of carefully weighted search results. The vast majority of results are left to obscurity.
Jacobson compares this to the traditional public forum. “Grant that anyone can speak. But what if someone controls who speaks where and at what time?” he asks. “What if favored voices are given the town center, a soapbox, and a mic at midday while undesirables are scheduled in the wee hours on a back alley where the police regularly tell them to hush?”
The effect is a monopoly on the conversation, even while everyone’s freedom to speak into the void is preserved. “The ability to control what people hear is nearly as great as the power to control what they say,” says Jacobson. “And that much power in the hands of one corporation should give pause to anyone who worries about concentration of power.”
A solution to a monopoly like Google is the introduction of competition into the playing field.
Enter new search engine competitor, Brave Search. Unlike the other search engine alternatives that pull from the same English language indexes created by Google and Bing, Brave Search runs off of its own index, only the third that is widely available and based in English.
(The other large-scale indexes are China’s Baidu and Russia’s Yandex, the latter of which is making a foray into the English speaking world at yandex.com.)
Jacobson explains that, building on its acquisition of Tailcat, Brave Search is “anonymously leveraging users’ computers to crawl the web and contribute to its index.” Maintaining an index of the web is a “massive undertaking” considering how much new content is posted online every twenty-four hours.
Brave Search is not yet a fully mature product, but the beta version launched for public use this summer at search.brave.com.
Not only does it provide an alternative to Google’s search algorithms, it also prioritizes the privacy of its users:
Out of the box, Brave browser blocks trackers and third-party cookies that monitor your activity as you travel across the web. But the browser also gives you control over what you do and don’t want to be blocked – from ads and cookies to Facebook and Google login buttons.Clifford Colby and Rae Hodge, “This Google Chrome rival is the browser to use if you’re worried about online privacy. What to know” at CNET
Google remains dominant for now. Brave Search is hardly as well-known as Google and will need to do some work in the public awareness arena. Additionally, Google remains the better engine to use when it comes to niche searches. Nevertheless, Brave Search is already a strong alternative and expected to grow stronger.
Another potential alternative to Google’s monopoly would be to hand over the control of the algorithm to the people. Far-fetched? Imagine a technology that would allow you to weight your own search instead of relying on Google’s almighty algorithm. At this year’s COSM event in Bellevue, Washington, you will have the opportunity to hear from a speaker who will be presenting this very technology.
Update: In addition to Google’s and Bing’s indexes, a little known search engine in the UK by the name of mojeek.com has also been building its own index. Though far from comprehensive, it surpassed 4 billion pages in 2021.