It used to be that search was a tool and it was, to say the least, amazing. But as the companies that control web search have shifted from providing a service to selling products, search has slowly, inexorably, evolved — and not in a good way.
Today a Google search for “car rental” fills the first page with a series of Google-created car rental options and sponsored posts. It’s frustrating, but it’s worse than that — it’s not search. It's advertising.
Along the way, simple things that could make Google search genuinely more valuable are left by the side of the road — presumably on purpose. For example, if you’re searching for a solution to a software glitch, why does Google not allow you to set a preference that will deliver recent results first? Why is a four-year-old version of Premiere the first result?
So, maybe the solution is to move to Microsoft’s Bing? Well, the simple answer to that is "no." Bing presents the sort of endlessly scrolling web page design that eliminates unnecessary page clicks. Search is fast but overwhelming, and doesn't seem to provide any better results than Google.
So what is Microsoft's solution? It has started opting users into Bing when they update their operating system, even using Bing as the default search on Google’s Chrome Browser. Ouch.
So let’s try the new kid on the block, DuckDuckGo, which was founded in 2008 by CEO Gabriel Weinberg. The company has been competing with Google for more than a decade, offering a search engine that emphasizes privacy and doesn’t collect user data.
But in terms of search results, it’s not drastically better than either Google or Bing. That may be because of how it’s constructed. It’s built on a Yahoo service called Build Your Own Search Service (BOSS). But Yahoo is owned by AOL, and AOL is owned by Verizon — and Verizon has been moving away from web content, so not sure how long this lasts.
Today, DuckDuckGo has 400 sources combined into its search results: Bing, Wikipedia, Apple Maps, TripAdvisor and more.
“We're not trying to topple Google,” Weinberg has said. “Our goal is for consumers who want to choose a private option, they should be able to do so easily.”
DuckDuckGo is in the ad game as well —just not with invasive tracking of users. The company makes money through ads and affiliate revenue, sponsored links, and affiliate links with Amazon and eBay.
So what about a newcomer, one you might not think of: Amazon?
Not that long ago, a search for a product you needed was remarkably elegant. You typed in AA batteries, and Amazon came up with the results. You searched from prices low to high, included five-star user reviews as a filter, and you came up with low-priced AA batteries that other consumers had good experiences with. Viola!
But in the past year or so, Amazon search results have turned into a veritable battleground between company divisions. A simple search results in a series of sponsored posts at the top of the results. These are products that are neither the best nor the most popular — just the ones where marketers have jumped the line and paid to be the first result. Then there are Amazon-created products known as basics, that also get preferential treatment.
The result is a page of products where user content and good user experience are indiscriminately mixed with paid posts, sponsored posts and Amazon products. No longer is a search on Amazon simple or successful, and often the best products at the best price are pages deep into the search results. Stranger still, sale price and product details are often impossible to find.
Search is broken because it’s free — and because you’re not the customer. You’re the product. So that means Google, Bing, and Amazon are all selling you as the product to advertisers. And the better they serve advertisers, the more money they make. DuckDuckGo is an outlier in this regard, but it also needs to pay bills, and free doesn’t cut it. So it's also gotten in on the ad game.
What about paying for a search engine? Or an email service — or any of the other things on the internet that claim to be free? Well, that’s an idea worth considering.