A Proposal for Non-Profit Search Engines

A Proposal for Non-Profit Search Engines

2017, Feb 04    

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Ever since Google became a household name people have been worried about what they would start doing with our data. Back in 2012 when I wrote this, one solution that I was interested in was to create a non-profit, open-source search engine. The closest thing we have today is DuckDuckGo, which is closed-source, but does not store personal data.

This post is being republished as part of my 2017 writing project, but it was first posted here in March, 2012.


Lately people have been making all sorts of noise about Google’s changes to their search engine. As you probably know, Google is the most widely-used search engine in the world, and the company now offers hundreds of other web based services to add value to their users.

Personally, I think Google has done a great job improving search over the past decade and a half, but we are reaching a point where Google’s interests may collide with offering honest search results to users.

For example, Yelp’s IPO statement cites Google as both its biggest asset for gaining new users as well as its biggest competitor. For those who don’t know, Yelp is a local review site that recently started trading publicly on the NYSE. Because the site is the largest review website of its kind, it naturally gathers much of its traffic from users who use Google to search for local businesses - especially those without a website or strong social media presence. At the same time, Google has its own competing review aggregator, which means that if Google wanted, they could force their results to the top of the list every time. This could effectively kill Yelp’s ability to get new users, and raises a lot of questions about Google’s monopoly on search and its effect on internet businesses.

For the past year or two, Google’s intentions to integrate search with its own services more deeply has become clear, and I’ve been considering what a non profit search engine might look like.

A great model to look at for guidance is Wikipedia, the non-profit internet encyclopedia. Could having a crowdsourced, community-funded non-profit search engine be the way to save search engines from becoming cogs in a corporate advertising machine?

Essentially, a non-profit search engine would allow users to drive improvements to the algorithm by reporting bad results or collaborating on improvements. I would envision a core team with many contributors - much like any open source project hosted on Github. While the basic functionality (crawling, link-tracking, etc.) would be the same as a search engine like Google, an impartial not for profit search engine could sidestep the obvious pitfalls like Google’s SPYW and the aforementioned Yelp problem. Of course, there is room for abuse in this system as well, but the idea needs to be considered more seriously in the coming months or years.

What do you think?  Should there be a major player in the search engine market that is not for profit? Would this actually help or is it even necessary? Let me hear your thoughts on Twitter.