Every time you enter a search term into a text box in a web browser, you leave a trail of digital breadcrumbs, and various corporations — most of them American — make a little money. Every search is tracked, analyzed, categorized, and squeezed for ad revenue.
Within Europe, Google has a 93.6% market share of web searches, according to Netmarketshare.com. Bing has 2.7%. Russia's Yandex has just 1.6% — though it has 64% of Russian market share.
Search companies accumulate data on users' searches, so they can personalize search results and deliver more user-relevant online ads. The resulting personal profiles contain an astonishing amount of information about you, including information that could easily be used to infer your political preferences, among much else.
Globally, web search market share is divided between Google (70.6%) and Microsoft's Bing (13.0%), China's Baidu (11.8%), Yahoo (2.3%), Russia's Yandex (1.2%), and DuckDuckGo with 0.43%. The only European search company in the top 10 is Berlin-based Ecosia, in ninth place globally, with a 0.12% market share — but it relies on Bing search results.
Masks provide privacy
Andreas Wiebe, founder of Switzerland-based internet search company SwissCows, explained to DW that some search companies help users protect their privacy by creating a cutout or mask which lets users search Google or Bing without getting tracked: "These search services strip a user's search query of identifying data, send the search term to Google or Bing, wait for results, and then return results to the user."
For example, the Netherlands-based search company StartPage, which won a 2019 consumer choice award from German consumer organization Stiftung Warentest, is a privacy-focused mask over Google search results. The popular US-based search company DuckDuckGo is a mask over Bing search results, as is France's Qwant.
Ecosia also uses Bing, but it doesn't prioritize user privacy. Its unique selling point is that 80% of Ecosia's profits support tree-planting projects: as of July 2020, more than 100 million seedlings have been planted using Ecosia's share of search-generated advertising revenues.
Indexing the internet is expensive
A few small search companies go beyond merely being a mask over Google or Bing, and operate their own "web crawler" software to index and store web pages independently.
SwissCows has its own web crawler, but "our search results are a hybrid," Wiebe said. "When you put a search term into SwissCows.com, about 20% to 25% of results are generated from our own index; the rest are from Bing."
SwissCows' selling point is "semantic search," which makes it easy to perform a series of conceptually related searches; a strong emphasis on privacy; and a family-friendly filtering-out of violence and pornography.
Exalead, a unit of France's Dassault Systemes, has its own search engine, but also mostly relies on Bing. MetaGer, a spinoff from the University of Hanover, combines results from its own partial index of the web with results from other search engines.
Wiebe wants Europe to build the data centers needed to support fully European search engines, but his small company can't afford to do it alone: Indexing the billions of web pages is "a gargantuan exercise that would take a very large data center six or seven years to complete, requiring enormous amounts of computer power, electricity, and money," he said.
"Google and Bing have the capacity; so do China's Baidu and Russia's Yandex. No one else has. This is why most search companies just provide a mask over the search results from Google or Bing."
Startpage, founded in the Netherlands in 2006, claims to be the world's first private search engine. The company says it does not track, log, create user profiles, or share user data. So how does it make money?
"We make money through contextual advertising related to a website's content. Meaning if you search for bicycles, you'll be served with bicycle-related ads along with your search results," Startpage co-founder and CEO Robert Beens told DW. "This is different from behavioral advertising" — the kind used by Google and Facebook, among others — "which taps into personalized information such as pages visited, searches performed, links clicked, products purchased, and location."
Though Startpage can be used from any internet browser, in May the company inked a deal with Norway-based Vivaldi Technologies, the firm behind the feature-rich new Vivaldi browser. Vivaldi offers additional privacy-enhancing tools to protect users from trackers and unwanted ads, along with sophisticated, highly user-customizable tab management, user interface, and navigation tool choices.
Given that users' search privacy can be retained simply by using a service like Startpage, DuckDuckGo, or SwissCows as a cutout to prevent Google or Bing from identifying or tracking users, why should Europe bother going to the great expense of setting up a rival to Google or Bing?
Andreas Wiebe says Europe's dependency on American data centers weakens its negotiating position in the bilateral trade relationship, compromises Europe's ability to effectively implement its own data privacy laws, and makes it easier for the US government to enforce financial sanctions against foreign targets even when Europe doesn't support the sanctions.
Europe's digital landscape is dominated by American corporations like Google, Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn, or Twitter, and "building a fully European data infrastructure would help a stronger European digital services industry to emerge," Wiebe said.
"We need some European digital champions."