The Best Web Search Option in the World?

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 6 November 2012 |

I’m new to the environs of the Startpage search engine, but already I can see that it’s very special. Startpage was effectively recommended to me by Tor – the proxy-plus-browser package for privacy-obsessed Web surfers. The Tor recommendation in itself is some accolade, but once you see what Startpage offers, you quickly realise that its appeal extends way beyond the privacy element.

If you value your privacy, the likes of DuckDuckGo search, with its memorable one-line privacy policy (“By default, DuckDuckGo does not collect or share personal information”), is certainly an attractive proposition. But as I concluded in my DuckDuckGo article earlier this year, whilst the search engine is perfect as regards user privacy, it’s simply not as powerful as Google when it comes to the actual search results.

Startpage is as sophisticated as Google, because rather than having its own search algorithms like DuckDuckGo, it actually uses Google for its search queries. Think of it like this: you tell Startpage what you want to find, and Startpage Google-searches it for you, then gives you Google’s results. So you get the power of a Google search, complete with the important advanced search options currently lacking in DuckDuckGo. Why not just go straight to Google? Well, because even if you don’t register with Google and log in, Google captures your IP address, tracks you with cookies, records your browser type and operating system details, etc… and all of that means you’re not searching anonymously, or privately.

Startpage search engine in Seamonkey browser
This capture shows a search on Startpage. The yellow highlighting is mine, not Startpage's, and identifies the special Ixquick link feature described later in the main text. The integration of Ixquick with anonymous Google searching makes Startpage an almighty proposition for the privacy-conscious Web-surfer.

Startpage doesn’t record your IP address, or your browser details, or your OS details – and it doesn’t use tracking cookies. Note, though, that it does use a 90-day cookie to ensure your preferences are maintained from one session to the next. But there's no problem there as far as I’m concerned. This cookie is for your benefit – not Startpage’s. Clearly, Startpage is not interested in collecting users’ data, and as far as I can see, any changes the search facility has made to its practices over the past six or so years have been to enhance user privacy rather than compromise it. It's been moving in the opposite direction to Google and Bing, basically.

So what do we have so far? Startpage gives you a Google-strength search, with complete privacy. That may already look like the Holy Grail – but get this… When you see your Startpage search results, each result has an Ixquick Proxy link (highlighted yellow in the screen capture above). What’s Ixquick Proxy? Ixquick Proxy is an anonymiser, which means that not only can you keep your Web searches free from data collection – you can also keep your site visits free from data collection too. Clicking on the Ixquick link rather than the main site link, will still take you to your selected site – but rather than going direct, you’ll instead go via Ixquick. This means the data your chosen site sees and potentially collects (IP address, etc), is Ixquick’s – not yours. Naturally, the usual issues with using a proxy/anonymiser service will apply (have a look at my Anonymouse article for more on that), but Ixquick seems fully competent in its genre.

So Startpage is an all-in-one solution for the privacy conscious. You get those powerful searches, combined with complete privacy, and if you stick to using the Ixquick links rather than the main links in the search results, that complete privacy is maintained in your site visits too.

When I saw the integration of anonymiser (Ixquick) and privacy-conscious, Google-powered search engine (Startpage) I must say I got really excited. This is a fantastic combination which for most applications means you don’t have the nightmare and sluggishness of trying to use search engines (particularly Google) via proxy services like Tor, or the hassle of using the less sophisticated and more limited search algorithms of DuckDuckGo for speed, then copying and pasting each link into an anonymiser for subsequent site visits. What Startpage accomplishes is the solution I’m sure any Web user who cares about privacy has been looking for. Read more on both Startpage and Ixquick, and decide for yourself whether you want to continue using Google search. If you see things the way I do, you may just have found a new default search engine, and staggering as it sounds, you may no longer need Google search AT ALL!

A NOTE OF BALANCE

Of course I’ve been very positive about this discovery. It finally gives me something I’ve been wanting for a long time. But it should be borne in mind that without Google, Startpage is useless. Plus, a lot of people are not only completely unconcerned about being tracked and bubbled by Google – they actually like it, because it personalises their experience and for them, makes using the Web cosier, and easier. One person’s “privacy invasion” is another person’s “motherly/fatherly help”. Equally, one person’s “Web independence” is another person’s “groping around in the dark”. So let’s hope Google retains a healthy userbase, and that not everyone sees Startpage as the no-brainer it appears to me.

I also want to mention that the Protect Your Privacy advice on Startpage has what looks like an affiliate link to the AOLstalker site. The prinicple is that AOLstalker reveals just how seriously things can go wrong if you’re not privacy conscious on the Internet. However, the AOLstalker site is a bloody nightmare to use. My browser was blocking pop-ups before the homepage had even loaded, and the site opens up full page get-rich-quick ads in a new browser window (hidden behind the active window) each and every time you click on the search entry box. In terms of behaviour, it’s roughly equivalent to your average porn site. No adult content on there, obviously, but the scripts are just about as aggressive. This is not Startpage, I should stress – it’s a completely separate site. But Startpage should rapidly reconsider its decision to place that link in a document castigating bad behaviour on the Web, because it looks very hypocritical. The site on that link is not at all well behaved.

Regarding the actual performance and interface, Startpage does offer an Image Search as well as a Web Search, although the Image Search doesn't have the infinite scrolling of Google, and the results don't seem so plentiful. However, compared with DuckDuckGo, which has to refer the user to Bing or Google for image searches, I much prefer the Startpage approach. You don't get every feature of Google with Startpage, of course, but you can do thorough searches, and you can do them in private. Plus, it can also be said that you don't get every feature of Startpage with Google. Does Google offer an anonymised link for every organic search result? No. And that's what tips the balance in favour of Startpage for me.

CONCLUSION

As I say, I’ve only just discovered the fullness of Startpage’s talents, and of course I’ll update the article if I find any negative points. But if Tor is defaulting to Startpage when Google searches fail on proxy (as it did for me), I very much doubt there’s much to worry about as regards Startpage. Tor is one of the most rigorous privacy systems available, and if Tor is happy with Startpage, you can bet that decision won’t have been made on a whim.

So is Startpage the best Web search option in the world? Well, it's the best I've managed to find to date, given my privacy obsession. I do think it offers a significantly better solution than DuckDuckGo at the time of writing, and I’d like to recommend it. Many more links like the one in that Protect Your Privacy article, though, and I may begin to change my mind.

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