A faster and more private search engine to rival Google? Now, that's Brave

Google competitor promises to keep privacy of its users by not tracking their searches. Rhodri Marsden explains

Brave is a new browser that says it is three times faster than Chrome. Victor Besa/The National
Brave is a new browser that says it is three times faster than Chrome. Victor Besa/The National

The word “Google” started out as a proper noun, but it ended up a verb. That’s hardly surprising, given that it’s more convenient to say “Google” than “use a search engine”, and everyone knows what it means.

Google, however, isn’t keen on us doing this; after all, history provides many examples of companies that lost trademarks when they lapsed into generic use (aspirin and trampoline among them). But when a US court ruled in 2017 that Google could keep its trademark, its reasoning was clear: people don’t use “Google” to mean any search engine. They use it to mean Google.

It may not be quite a monopoly, but the platform handles 92 per cent of the world’s search queries. Its nearest competitor, Bing, has a mere 2.6 per cent market share.

A 'private' search alternative

So, given Google’s massive dominance, you might wonder why anyone would bother launching a competitor. But Brave, a web browser dedicated to the privacy of users, has announced a plan to do exactly that. It believes there’s demand for a platform that does not track searches or build profiles of its users. Brave Search, as it’ll be known, is billed as the “the first private alternative to Google Search”, with a completely independent index and a no-snooping guarantee. The big question is whether we care enough about our privacy to change what has become an instinctive habit: to Google things.

Opinions differ as to how Google reached its dominant position. The company believes it’s a superior product that does its job brilliantly. Others allege that Google has used anticompetitive behaviour to force its search engine upon us. That allegation forms the basis of a lawsuit filed against the company by the US Department of Justice.

What’s abundantly clear is that the competition is meagre. Discounting country-­specific tools such as Baidu in China and Naver in South Korea, smaller search engines are all either powered by Google or Bing. Among those are two privacy-focused engines, DuckDuckGo and the French-built Qwant, which both use Bing to deliver results.

Google is the world's most dominant search browser on the internet. Unsplash
Google is the world's most dominant search browser on the internet. Unsplash

They, along with Brave, would contend that Google’s near-monopoly is damaging. DuckDuckGo’s chief executive, Gabriel Weinberg, describes Google’s approach as a “surveillance business model”, whereby the accumulation of personal data is used to make money through evermore accurately targeted advertising.

Former US assistant attorney general Makan Delrahim says the fact that the product is free does not matter; this, he says, is about “consumer welfare”. That welfare could encompass the way Google’s model causes advertisements to follow us around the internet, or the filter bubble that allows Google to serve search results it believes we’re likely to click on, rather than the ones we might actually want.

How will Brave work?

Unlike DuckDuckGo and Qwant, Brave is entering the fray with its own search engine, built from the ground up. The task of constructing an index as comprehensive as Google’s is an insurmountable challenge, so it’s taking a different approach: to anonymously analyse searches and clicks to build up a picture of what’s relevant.

“What we’re trying to do is different, it’s not based on crawling the web,” Brave chief executive Brendan Eich told technology website The Register. Brave’s system can detect “when you don’t convert on the search, and you leave the results page, and you find the better results through some number of clicks”. Those clicks improve the engine – and they can’t be traced. “There’s no way to say this query was from the same user as that query,” he said.

The company is combining this with a technology called Goggles (unrelated to the Google spectacles of the same name), which uses the Brave community to maintain filters of preferred information sources. So, instead of using Brave to search the entire web, you look for one of those filters instead. A paper produced by Brave gives examples of such filters: “Product reviews without commercial intent,” “Nature lovers in the Pyrenees,” “Recipe search that my mum likes,” and so on.

The question is whether a restricted search such as this is as valuable as the exhaustive, web-wide index that Google provides. James Temperton, digital editor at Wired UK, believes it is.

“Most of the things I search for are easy to find,” he wrote in a column in November 2019. “I had, based on zero evidence, convinced myself that finding things on the internet was hard and, inevitably, involved a fair amount of tracking.” But after two years of using DuckDuckGo, he realised this simply wasn’t true.

A changing search landscape

Through sheer frequency of use, we’ve come to believe that Google is indispensable. But it may not be. Regardless of how Brave Search ends up performing in comparison to Google, it will have difficulty prising people away, not least because Google – despite the lawsuits and privacy issues – is regularly shown in surveys to be trusted. But the search landscape is undoubtedly changing.

This month, the US Department of Justice renewed efforts to pursue evidence relating to Google’s alleged anticompetitive behaviour. And as Brave made its big announcement, Google dropped a bombshell – it revealed plans to stop using browser history to tailor advertising and to stop making tools that track people’s data across its products. A company representative even referred to “rising consumer expectations for privacy”.

And, as rumours swirl that Apple is developing a search engine, and other privacy-focused contenders such as Neeva prepare to launch, the search marketplace looks as if it might get a little crowded. And, who knows, “to Google” could even, one day, fall out of favour.

Published: March 18, 2021 12:00 AM

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