Data Doctors Column: Comparing private search engines

Q: Which private search engine is better, Startpage or DuckDuckGo?

A: Search engines are an essential navigation tool for the endless number of websites on the Internet, which is the main reason Google has become one of the titans of tech.

Google’s search engine is considered the most powerful but the trade-off is that you give up privacy through their expansive tracking technologies.

If you want to avoid the tracking but still get excellent search results, a private search engine does just that.

Bypassing the tracking can be especially helpful when you share a computer with someone you are shopping for because what you searched for won’t suddenly show up in ads all over the Internet.

It can also reduce the biased results that might show up in a search that’s based on all your past activities.

Startpage and DuckDuckGo offer similar private web searching services in very different ways.

Anonymized Search Results

The way both services work is they submit your requests to their associated search engines in an anonymous way, which eliminates the personal tracking but still provides the search results.

Startpage uses Google search and DuckDuckGo primarily uses Microsoft’s Bing search engine to generate their results, so if you have a current preference that may help you make your choice.

Associated Ad Networks

One of the ways these free tools pay the bills is by displaying ads within your search results – Startpage uses the Google Ad network and DuckDuckGo uses Microsoft’s Ad network.

The ads displayed in your results are solely based on what you searched for at that moment and not on anything that you’ve searched for in the past.

They don’t use tracking cookies from past sessions or share any of your personally identifiable information with the ad networks.

DuckDuckGo does make it easy to turn off the ads altogether by going to the ‘All Settings’ page, but keep in mind that’s how they are able to provide you this free service.

Ads are clearly labeled in both search tools, so you can easily identify them vs the actual search results.

Slight Tracking Differences

There is a slight difference in how these tools treat your search queries as DuckDuckGo logs search queries without connecting them to you in an effort to improve results and track general trends. Startpage collects nothing at all, so from a privacy standpoint, it gets a slightly better grade.

Where They Are Based

Startpage is based in the Netherlands and is subject to EU privacy laws, which are much more restrictive and focused on users’ control of their own data. DuckDuckGo is based in the US but has some exposure to EU data restrictions when you use an EU-based server to generate results.

This shouldn’t be a reason to use one over the other as neither of them collects anything that is user identifiable, which is where the EU rule difference really comes into play.

Tracking Still Happens

Keep in mind, the moment you click on a link to any of the websites in the search results, you are subject to whatever that site has set up for user tracking and data collection.

If you want better control overall, consider using either of these search tools with a privacy browser such as Brave.

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