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Dubbed “the world’s most private search engine”, StartPage would seem to fit the bill for anyone who wants a confidential, safe Google alternative. But is this the case, and do the claims made by the StartPage search engine stack up?
This StartPage review will look at one of the major contenders for Google’s crown, and dig deep into what makes this search tool worth trying. And we’ll also assess how it measures up against other alternatives, with a full StartPage vs DuckDuckGo comparison to round things off.
But first, why would you need to use a private search engine anyway?
Understanding what private search engines do
There was a time when searching the web was an innocent activity. When companies like Lycos, Webcrawler, Altavista, and – yes – a young upstart called Google competed, few people complained about the effects on personal privacy.
However, this has changed as Google established an effective monopoly in the search engine sector.
According to many search engine experts, Google has abused its position, running roughshod over user privacy. Users have been spied on via tracking cookies and IP logging; their emails have been exposed to app developers; Google has made billions from selling user data without a sniff of consent, and what’s more, the company has leaked data like a sieve.
Private search engines seek to replicate or build on the functionality of Google while remedying those defects. Most importantly, they want to protect user identities, while finding creative ways to fund their operations.
Not all of them manage to score highly on the privacy front, but at least they are trying. So let’s find out where StartPage lies in the new world of private search engines.
What is StartPage?
While the popularity of private search engines has spiked in recent years, many of the most popular options actually have quite long histories. The StartPage search engine is a great example, with roots stretching back to 1998.
Founded by David Bodnick as (the less catchily named) Ixquick, the search engine was purchased by Dutch company Surfboard Holding BV in 2000, which still operates the StartPage site.
From the start, the search tool has sought to foreground privacy. In fact, StartPage was among the first operators to combine a standard search front end with a web proxy, allowing users to search anonymously.
IXquick rebranded in 2009, creating StartPage.com, which now offers a very Google-esque search facility. Users will feel right at home with its interface, but behind the surface, things look very different.
Key features of the way StartPage works
- Search engine aggregation – the StartPage search engine doesn’t rely on a single crawler to build its index. Instead, it assesses results from 10 leading search engines (including Google), prioritizing links which appear in all 10.
- No cookies are involved in the process. Well, just one. This cookie is basically a user preferences tool, storing your basic settings for a period of 90 days (assuming you don’t visit StartPage in the interim).
- StartMail is provided as an auxillary service. Resembling Gmail in some respects, this is a fully encrypted webmail service, offering PGP encryption – even for emails sent to those without encryption of their own.
- Whenever you make a search, you’ll notice that each link has a subsidiary link entitled “anonymous view.” This lets you move from StartPage to the target site without that site knowing where you have come from, or the search terms which took you there. So it works around a key issue with Google’s systems.
Users should also note that most basic features of Google are incorporated into the StartPage search engine. For instance, you can search images and videos, users can filter by time and date, and results can also be filtered by language. There’s even a mapping app to find reliable directions.
How does StartPage actually work?
Some of the features involved are quite innovative – even 20 years after the StartPage search engine first appeared, and it’s worth looking at them in a bit more detail.
Firstly, anonymous view. In this setting, the search engine uses its own IP address to access third-party websites. When it does this, those sites will see only the search engine and no data about your own individual location.
Moreover, StartPage doesn’t transfer a full “user agent” profile to target websites. Instead, the user agent only includes a “cleaned” version, which simply alerts sites to the browser being used. That way, you can benefit from whatever browser optimization is in effect at the site, but the site’s managers can’t detect much about your device.
Secondly, there’s the StartPage search engine business model. With mainstream search engines like Google, the user is their main asset. They build profiles about their tastes and movements, which can be sold for huge profits.
StartPage doesn’t do that. However, the company still needs to make money. To do so, it delivers sponsored advertising with every search. You’ll see these ads at the top of your search results (marked clearly by the word “ad” in a little box).
These adverts aren’t targeted based on personal profiles or search histories. They are just associated with the search terms you use. So while they may not always be 100% relevant to your interests, the system used to choose them isn’t harvesting your personal data.
Is StartPage safe
We’ve already covered anonymous searches and the StartPage search engine business model, and both aspects of the company suggest that it’s a fairly promising Google alternative. Are there any other things we should know about its general safety?
Actually, yes. For one thing, StartPage does not store any data about what you search for. So there’s no scope for profiling, and if law enforcement bodies come to the search company demanding data, they will have to leave empty-handed.
The company has also been a long-term, vocal critic of NSA spying, particularly the PRISM program unmasked by Edward Snowden. And it states categorically that it has never handed any amount of data to the US government.
Additionally, the StartPage search engine uses encryption by default. Every page associated with the site is shielded by HTTPS encryption, so outsiders have no access to the content of searches being performed.
For all of these reasons, this StartPage review is pretty positive about what the tool offers, and how its creators have thought about search engine privacy. However, there is one final security aspect to mention.
Is there a StartPage search engine virus?
In the past, the StartPage search engine has been associated with viruses which automatically set the engine’s front page as users’ default home page. Apparently, this was caused by a virus called Trojan-StartPage, and the company itself had nothing to do with it.
When users used the fake search engine, it put them at risk of contracting further malware and handing over personal information. So StartPage has provided guidance about what to do if this happens to you.
And, as ever, it’s a good idea to update your antivirus and antimalware systems – whatever search engine you employ. But as far as we can tell, this isn’t a reason to downgrade our StartPage review.
StartPage vs DuckDuckGo
Finally, we need to situate the StartPage search engine in the broader ecology of Google alternatives, and a comparison with DuckDuckGo is the perfect way to do so.
DuckDuckGo has a similar emphasis on privacy and is as well-respected, so you may want to try both to see which one ticks your boxes. To help you decide, here’s a comparison table with the key information.
StartPage: Surfboard Holding B.V (based in the Netherlands)
DuckDuckGo: CEO Gabriel Weinberg (with significant venture capital investment)
StartPage: 1998 (rebranded in 2009 and 2016)
Number of pages indexed
StartPage: unknown, uses indexes from 10 leading search engines (including Google)
DuckDuckGo: last estimate 120 million (2011)
Number of daily queries
StartPage: at least 5.7 million
DuckDuckGo: 30 million
Advertising on the search engine?
DuckDuckGo: uses TLS encryption for all searches, US-based and uses Amazon servers for hosting, offers TOR exit enclave, no ads based on profiles – only keyword based, encrypted web links can be provided (not routine).
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