3 months without Google
Back from “to google” to “to search”
A lot of people like me probably started using Internet years before Google arrived, or at least, before Google was available and well-known in our Country. Years later, we got so used to Google that it became a verb: we don’t “search for something” any longer, we “google it”. It means that this search engine — talking only about this tool right now — is something that is so eradicated in our everyday life that we could difficulty imagine us living without. And that is what I’ve done in the past three months.
It all started from my — boring — privacy studies. If you didn’t know, every web services keep track of your data, of any kind, because your data is now a commodity and so your data is money. So simple. But fortunatly our privacy regulation obliges all these subjects to provide you with a copy of all information they memorize about you. So does Facebook with posts, photos, videos and messages (follow this link to obtain a downloadable archive). Also Google has a dedicated section of his website: here you will finds all kind of data stored on their servers and you can choose which one to download. Obviously they got your emails, photos and contacts; but they store also your locations, your searches and even the audio recorded every time you said Ok Google at your smartphone.
We also got used to get from Google search the results we expect to have: there is a (not so) slight difference between receiving results for what we are looking for and receiving results for what Google thinks we expect. From a naive point of view, you could say that if a search engine can predict what we want to know, the results will be much more useful for us. Side effect, you will believe that the Internet is much smaller than reality and that your opinion is the most common one — the first result is that very website that support your idea! Sadly, reality it’s not like that. Google makes you believe that you’re smarter than you are, that you are more popular than everyone with your same name just because you’re the first popping out in the search. You know what? You are the first because you made that search; it’s the same for me, for everyone else.
But there is an alternative. Maybe more than just one, but the most popular at the moment is for sure DuckDuckGo.com: a search engine that cares about your privacy. It won’t track your searches, it won’t change its results based on your habits. It represents maybe a “step back” from the current Google way of working, but so far it’s what we need to protect ourselves from tracking and profiling. Though it’s not enough — we still use Gmail, YouTube, Android… — it could be a good place to start and maybe to better understand what it means to have a tailored version of the Internet served to us.
I don’t want to talk about DuckDuckGo neither how it works, but I just want to quickly focus on the little differences using Google instead of a search engine like this. Moreover, there is a lot to talk about regarding the Internet tracking practices, but it’s not my actual purpose.
First of all, forget obtaining results in your language first. At last, you will find a switch up on the page, guessing your language based on your IP address. That is the only info DDG has on you: if you use a VPN for your privacy as I often do, the engine will never catch the right Country for you.
Additionally, DDG doesn’t use your gps data so it cannot locate you, even if you are using a smartphone. So, looking for “restaurant” will give you Wikipedia pages about restaurants, websites of American food chains etc… At the same time, type restaurant in Google and you’ll have a perfect list of the best restaurants located near you! Yeah, it sounds cool but please take a moment to think how your plans can be changed just with the results of a web search. Google chooses the best restaurant for you — where the best is the one which pay more for ads — and so does with everything other you look for on the Internet.
Second — and maybe most important — DDG doesn’t keep track of your previous search. So, if you look for a specific piece of news that you once found in the 4th page, it will always stay at that point. With Google, your expected results are brought to front page because it tends to learn which are your internet habits, your tastes, your opinions. Getting better search after search, Google predicts your questions: it’s like looking at the 10% of the world believing to have a full knowledge of the remaining 90% too.
Yesterday you looked for a pair of Vans shoes and now you see that very model you didn’t buy everywhere in the ads in socials, webmail and banner in several websites. This is called remarketing: they know you were so close to buy that item but you eventually gave up. So they torture you the days following presenting you that tempting pair of shoes that you wanted. Diabolic. Or try to google for tourist USA health insurance: your web experience will be stars’n’stripes for weeks. This is because Google takes note of your researches and links them to your profile — yeah, that’s what cookies are for! — so that its advertising network could know who you are and what ads would be best for you! Using DDG for a while is like being so introvert that your friends don’t know anything about your tastes — but still, your friends usually don’t try to sell you stuff.
To sum up, switching all devices to DuckDuckGo as default search engine instead of Google makes your Internet experience a little less comfortable: results are not personalized upon your habits, it takes longer to reach the page you wanted and you have this sensation of something not so smart for 2016.
On the other hand, your effort is paid back with a lot more of privacy, with no one trying to interfere with your everyday decisions. It is a little but it still something in the today’s world where nothing is un-recorded and un-analyzed. Obviously, fleeing from Google Search but sticking with Gmail, YouTube, your Android smartphone and so on, is almost totally useless. Every action is still tracked and used for business purpose and maybe a really offline life is impossible right now.
Update (19/06/2017): it has been one year since I started my process of de-googlefication and I think I made some progress that are worth to share. Thanks to the privacy control in Google, I deleted all data they stored, expecially the search history, locations and similar. I kept using DuckDuckGo as search engine and, whenever I did need Google on my mobile, I used it through Firefox Focus browser for iOS. On my MacBook I’ve been using Safari for almost everything and limited Chrome to extreme necessities: anyway, I’ve never surfed Internet while been logged into my Google account — and I never added it to Chrome, of course. I stopped used Gmail and moved to a different service (Zoho) that also allowed me to use a private domain for my address.
I have no idea of the results of this self mutilation, probably I will never have. Yet, I decided to keep on doing this, it makes me feel slightly better.