Google search is terrible. We all know it, but the company uses its market position to keep its search engine as the default on your phone and laptop. It’s unavoidable unless you make a concerted effort to leave it behind.
Climate change is already causing an incredible impact on the planet, so I started using Ecosia, the tree-planting search provider, in 2020. It worked for a while, even if the search results, powered by Microsoft’s Bing, were a bit less reliable.
But in September 2023, Ecosia announced a partnership with Google, removing any incentive I had to stay. Fortunately, Brave Search, from the company behind the privacy-focused Brave Browser, was there to pick up the pieces.
Google’s results are filled with spam, Ecosia was better
After some soul-searching about whether I felt more strongly about privacy or climate change, I switched my default search to Ecosia in 2020. The Germany-based search provider lets you build up points with each search, which it converts into newly planted trees.
It’s not totally private — it still sends some data to Microsoft (Ecosia uses Bing to complete searches), but it felt like a good trade-off and would be better than Google anyway.
Although part of the resistance to Bing has always been that it’s not Google (and it was a pretty poor experience when it launched in 2009), it was a bit disorienting to switch to an entirely different set of results than I’d been used to on Google. But it’s always like this when something changes, so I persevered.
I use Firefox as my primary browser, and you can use the URL bar to switch search providers on the fly, so when I knew I needed to run something through Google (like error codes, which Google still excels at) I could either click the Google icon or use the @google shortcut to switch for that search.
Does using Ecosia actually help the environment?
But the problem I should have noticed right away was that using Ecosia made me feel like I was doing something good. But was I really?
Even Greenpeace doesn’t think much of carbon offsetting schemes like tree planting, referring to them as ‘PR plans’ designed to give the illusion of climate progress while greenwashing the reputations of the businesses involved — a process I wrote about for MakeUseOf.
I don’t doubt the motivations of the team at Ecosia — one of the reasons I switched is that they seem to sincerely believe in the business’ mission — but, in the end, I could just set up a donation to a tree planting organisation if I really wanted to do something.
And the underlying results come from Microsoft, a firm responsible for 4.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2021, according to a report from the ElectronicsHub.
In 2020, Ecosia announced that it had planted 100 million trees, eliminating 1,771 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every day. That equates to 646,415 tons each year — just a fraction of the amount Microsoft, its search partner, produces.
I could overlook this, judging that doing something is better than doing nothing, but for a change Ecosia made in September 2023; partnering with Google.
Google ads come to Ecosia
Although privacy was never the sole unique selling point (USP) for Ecosia, it was a significant part of the company’s marketing, noting that they don’t create profiles of you or store your searches, and they only send your IP address and search term to Microsoft.
However, Google wants to track you everywhere across the web so they can serve you targeted ads — a core part of the business, netting over $200 billion a year, according to Statista.
So, with this new search partnership, Ecosia wants to set a Google cookie on your browser so that your searches and online behaviour can be monitored and stored against your Google profile (even if you don’t have a Google account).
Although the notice says you can opt out of this new scheme, it’s a fundamental change to how Ecosia positions itself. If tree planting isn’t that effective, you can donate directly to a tree planting charity, and Ecosia is willing to undermine its privacy-focused credentials, then what makes it any better than using Google or Bing directly?
Fortunately, there is an alternative; Brave Search.
Brave Search is actually private (and quite good)
The Brave Browser — a Chromium-based web browser using the same underlying software as Google Chrome, but with all the Google tracking removed — has gained a lot of fans for its focus on privacy, speed, and features.
Although some of these (like the cryptocurrency wallet) are a novelty, the internet has been designed for Chrome, so websites work as they should on Brave. But much like Proton, the developer of the privacy-focused email platform Proton Mail, Brave wants to build a suite of tools to replace Google’s ecosystem.
One of the most ambitious is Brave Search, a unique search engine that doesn’t rely on Microsoft or Google for its results. By 2022, it had indexed over 10 billion pages, but Brave decided not to directly compete with the scope of Google’s index to reduce spam.
So, if you can’t find what you’re looking for on Brave Search, you can use the Google Fallback option, which mixes Google results into your search results page on Brave without sending any of your data to Google. Brave uses those results to “learn what types of queries need more work.”
Of course, competing with Google is not an easy task, and promising private search providers have come and gone over the years without much impact. But as Brave’s FAQs note, it aims to “create a product that competes, not just on philosophy, but on the speed, accuracy, nuance, and completeness that users expect.”
The modern world is full of compromises, but small changes like using a secure password manager, switching to an independent private search engine, or investing in a more sustainable smartphone like the Fairphone 4 adds support for mission-led organisations and, even if they don’t topple Big Tech, shows that there is demand for viable alternatives.