Over the past few weeks, there’s been quite an uproar over Google and changes to its search services and the privacy policies that govern how and where the company can use your data. I wrote about some of those changes last week.
The backlash began Jan. 10 when Google started to include content from its Google+ social network in search results for people who were signed in to their accounts, and insult was added to injury on Jan. 24 when the Mountain View, Calif.-based company changed its privacy statement to allow for data sharing across all its services. Google, like every other company in the tech space, has to constantly modify its offerings to survive, but the combination of the two controversial announcements in quick succession made many feel that the “don’t be evil” company suddenly was being just a little evil.
Naturally, there were calls, from a small but vocal minority, for boycotting the service and switching from Google to some other, less “tainted” search engine.
And that got me thinking: What are the alternatives to Google if you’re trying to get some serious searching done?
I decided to put rubber to road on the question, and have come up with a list of search alternatives worth checking out for those who are fed up with Google, or just looking to try something new. I’ve rounded up my picks below, with brief descriptions of what you will — and won’t — get out of the best of the rest.
Yes . . . Microsoft’s Bing. The search service, which launched in June of 2009, offers a relatively solid search experience, including Google-like options such as image search, shopping searches, video and more. If you have to transition away from Google, this will probably be the least chafing move you’ll make. Bing essentially looks and works like Google.
The results aren’t quite as tuned as Google’s, but Bing offer some interesting additions, such as showing “related people” when you search for a name, and its image search tools are in some ways better than Google’s. Also, Microsoft has a deal with Facebook that lets you tie in the social network to your search. But wait a second — isn’t that why you’re bailing from Google in the first place?
For a stripped-down, no-frills experience, DuckDuckGo is a good place to start. The look and feel of the site is incredibly spartan (except for the logo, of course, which is a cartoon duck), and search results are presented in a single-column view clearly aimed at those who want an uncluttered experience.
There are notable differences here as well, such as the fact that you never have to click to move to another page of results (new results auto-load as you scroll down the page), and you’re presented with options to search specific services such as Amazon, Wikipedia or YouTube right from the search bar at the top of the page.
One thing you’ll notice with DuckDuckGo is that spam sites and rehashed content take a big back seat to real results. While Google may be more thorough, DuckDuckGo feels a lot cleaner.
Blekko is a relatively new contender in the search game, but it’s offering a fairly unique (and valuable take) on search. Not only does the site provide a number of search categories such as image, video and local queries, but it employs Wikipedia-like editing so that spam results don’t slip through the cracks.
Furthermore, the system uses an elaborate set of modifiers the company refers to as “slashtags” that let searchers narrow results. For instance, if you’re searching for Batman action figures, you might key in “batman /action-figures” which will bring up very specific entries related only (or at least mostly) to Batman toys.
Right now the engine is still relatively basic compared with the likes of Google or Bing, but it has huge potential thanks to a strict adherence to something the company calls a “Web search bill of rights,” which specifically rails against many of the practices the larger companies happily tolerate (or insist on).
WolframAlpha is a weird one. Not exactly a search engine, the service refers to itself as a “computational knowledge engine,” and that’s what it is. Instead of processing content like a traditional search service, WolframAlpha is more concerned with revealing empirical data. When you search for a historical figure such as Marie Curie, you get a timeline of the person’s life, place of birth and death, and other static information that reads more like math than narrative.
You can ask questions such as “What time is it in Tokyo?” and it gives a detailed overview, replete with analog clocks and the offset amount from where you are.
It’s a fascinating — if hard to grasp — concept. One that also happens to power much of what Apple’s Siri service offers.
These services can’t fully replace what Google does. For better or worse, Google has created a mountain of knowledge and incredible tools for sorting through that mountain. Even if you adopt one (or all) of the engines above, I bet you will still feel a longing to return to the big, comprehensive world of Google when you just need to get the job done.
At the end of the day, you may not agree with Google’s policies, but it’s hard to argue with the (search) results.
Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.theverge.com), a technology news Web site.