The World Needs a Non Profit Search Engine
Google is the most widely-used search engine in the world, and the company now offers hundreds of other services and products on top of search-based advertising. Personally, I think Google has done a great job improving search over the past two decades, but we are reaching a point where Google’s interests are colliding with offering honest search results to users.
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Google’s Competing Services
All the way back in 2012, Yelp’s IPO statement cited Google as both its biggest asset for gaining new users as well as its biggest competitor. Because the site was the largest local business review site when it went public, it gathered much of its traffic from users who use Google to search for nearby businesses - especially those without a website or strong social media presence.
Since Yelp launched, Google has released 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.
Smart Phones and Search Engines
A more recent frontier in the fight against Google is on smart phones. In 2020, the Justice Department brought a lawsuit against the search giant accusing them of “anticompetitive and exclusionary practices,” related to the pressure they allegedly put on phone makers to default to their search engine.
Because Google owns one of the two biggest mobile operating systesm (Android), they have a lot of power to push users towards their search engine. It’s possible that this latest lawsuit could result in a large judgment against the company. A similar lawsuit filed in the European Union in 2018 led Google to change the way it bundles apps on Android phones.
The Wiki Model for Search
As 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?
Spinning Off a Not For Profit Search Engine
Realistically, it’s not likely that a new competitor will be able to enter the search engine market and make any impact on Google’s market share. But, the US Justice Department or EU could split the company up.
For example, they could break Google up into multiple companies like they did to the telephone companies in the 1980s, or Google search could be turned into a public utility. This is how electric companies became publicly supported infrastructure, so it’s not impossible that it could happen again.
How Would a Non Profit Search Engine Work?
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 open-source projects 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 privacy pitfalls like Google’s SPYW and the aforementioned Yelp problem.
Of course, there is room for abuse in this system as well, but there are numerous improvements to be had in a publicly visible model like this.
The Best Option Today
The closest thing we have today is DuckDuckGo, which is closed-source and for-profit, but does not store personal data. This gives users some of the privacy-focused features that a non profit search engine might provide, but doesn’t answer the potential for abuse or eventual monopoly.
Earlier this year, I spent 3 months exclusively using DuckDuckGo as my search engine of choice. As a programmer, it was really challenging though. Google’s results have lots of context about my browsing behaviors, but DuckDuckGo doesn’t, so it takes a little massaging to get the results you might expect.
That said, DuckDuckGo did much better for non-technical search queries. For example, “watch Breaking Bad” takes you to a list of places you can watch the TV show “Breaking Bad.” The results are similar enough to Google’s that you probably wouldn’t notice the difference.
What do you think? Should there be a major player in the search engine market that is not for profit? Is it even necessary? Let me hear your thoughts on Twitter.
Note: I first wrote this post in 2012, but updated it based on the latest news in 2020.