Open search engines – non-tracking alternatives to Google


I’ve long been queasy about marketing to students.  But, I’ve long been a fan of Google and have required it for student projects.

Recent news reports that the government is archiving our students’ Google searches makes me even more concerned.  I strongly believe that a student should be able to research sensitive personal issues without concern that his/her curiosity will be tracked and saved.

But can we run a library without Google?  Is there a viable alternative?

Non-tracking search engines.

I’ve found two: DuckDuckGo and StartPage which don’t collect information about you or your students.

I can only trust that these search engines don’t track usage but I don’t have reason to doubt them.   Here is part of StartPage’s privacy statement:

StartPage does not store any user data. We make this perfectly clear to everyone, including any governmental agencies. We do not record the IP addresses of our users and we don’t use tracking cookies, so there is literally no data about you on our servers to access. Since we don’t even know who our customers are, we can’t share anything with Big Brother. In fact, we’ve never gotten even a single request from a governmental authority to supply user data in the fourteen years we’ve been in business.

StartPage uses encryption (HTTPS) by default. Encryption prevents snooping. Your searches are encrypted, so others can’t “tap” the Internet connection to snoop what you’re searching for. This combination of not storing data together with using strong encryption for the connections is key in protecting your Privacy.

From my understanding of how the government gathers our personal data, I think StartPage‘s strategy should work.  If StartPage doesn’t collect search histories, there is nothing to subpoena. Using HTTPS makes it much harder for the NSA to see what you are searching

(Click here for a short rant on open tools, students and privacy.)

Which alternative search engine is best?

I’ve done a lot of personal searches on both and SyartPage seems to yield the best results for me. It has been so good that I intend to make it my personal default search engine.

However, StartPage has paid search results which doesn’t solve my concerns about marketing to students.  Paid results are labelled as such but it might be too subtle for younger children to notice.

DuckDuckGo doesn’t have paid search results but sometimes I have had to work harder to get my information.

I encourage you to give both services an extended test since my “testing” is hardly scientific. DuckDuckGo might be fine for your students. And, besides, “DuckDuckGo” seems like the perfect name for a school library search engine!

Making the switch.

Steering students towards a non-logging search engine is easy — in Firefox, change the home page to a non-tracking search engine and change the browser’s default search engine to the same.  (If you haven’t done so already, set Firefox to automatically load on start-up.)

Manage Search EnginesYou will need to add DuckDuckGo and StartPage using the “manage search engines” link.  It’s not difficult but a nuisance if you have lots of library computers. (It’s an oversight that an open program like Firefox wouldn’t default to an open search engine.)  Your district’s IT department could probably do this for all the computers but I have never known an IT department who cared about privacy or open tools.

The hardest part is our own mind-change.  For example, we teachers need to stop telling students to “Google® it.”  We would not say “Kleenex® your nose,” “Bic® a note.” or “iPod® some music.”   These are all brands and I don’t believe our job, as educators, is to create brand loyalty. They get enough of that outside of school.


Tools:  StartPage and DuckDuckGo
Description:  non-tracking search engines
Alternatives: TOR
License: open-ethos
Rating: highly useful.