Would you pay for an ad-free search engine?

Google Search stock photo 4

Google’s dominant brand of web search has been one of the few constants on the World Wide Web over the past couple of decades. The tech giant’s near-monopoly on search traffic, combined with in-search ad placements and data collection have made it one of the most profitable enterprises in the world.

Few would question that there’s any other way of running a profitable search engine, as Bing and others operate in essentially the same way. All but the most privacy-conscious of us have, at least on some level, accepted trading in cookies and search history to sell advertising space as a price worth paying to conveniently find what we’re looking for online. This makes breaking Google’s grip on the market all the more difficult.

But what if you could escape all that tracking for a subscription fee? Would you pay the price for guaranteed search privacy?

See also: Best VPNs: our top 4 recommendations

What is Neeva?

This is exactly the premise of Neeva. Currently in early testing, Neeva promises a new take on the personalized search experience in exchange for a subscription fee. We don’t know the exact price yet, but the claim is it would initially cost about as much as two black coffees a month. In exchange, Neeva offers personalized web, email, calendar, and contact searches without ads and without selling your data on. Basically, everything Google provides but without the reliance on ad revenue. There’s a fancy-sounding Digital Bill of Rights, although it’s not the same as a legal privacy policy.

Neeva was founded by Sridhar Ramaswamy (ex-SVP of Ads at Google) and Vivek Raghunathan (ex-VP of Monetization at YouTube), which should give you some insight into the engine’s direction. This definitely isn’t a barebones privacy-focused search engine, but a much more integrated platform. As such, it’s not quite clear just how private all your information will be with Neeva. The company promises not to send personally identifiable information, such as location and IP addresses, out to external providers. However, its privacy policy states that Neeva “may share personal information with our affiliate companies� and that data will be retained as long as you use the service. So not entirely private then.

Nevertheless, Neeva’s pitch is a far cry from the data free-for-all that is Google Search.

Big data, big money

Google’s “free� services are hugely popular, but they come with the price of intimate tracking which, in the wrong hands, can be used to glean all sorts of private information about our lives. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others curate extensive profiles of our browsing, shopping, and other online habits sell ad space. Results are curated from various accounts and services, including reading our emails, making this virtually impossible to avoid, even if you’re already paying for a VPN or other web privacy solutions.

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The results are more than a little creepy, especially when products you’d only just thought about appear in your ads. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, we have little to no control over how this data is used and stored, and it’s virtually impossible to delete information spread across multiple companies. This data can be used for pretty much whatever these companies can legally cram into their terms of use and it’s regularly bought and sold in various forms to third parties. Collectively, the resulting big data is worth big money in an industry looking to train machine learning algorithms on huge datasets.

Breaking free from this advertising cycle can be done, although it’s not always easy and few make the effort to do so.

There are search engine options for the privacy-conscious

Google Chrome Incognito Mode with background

There’s been an uptick in interest for privacy search engines like DuckDuckGo and Startpage in recent years, on the back of their promises not to track you. The former collects keywords to help sell its in-search ads but doesn’t attempt to build a profile on you. Similarly, Startpage leverages Google’s search engine and ad system but serves them up with an anonymized profile, free from tracking and personalization. Despite all these upsides, these privacy search engines remain reliant on advertising revenue to stay in business.

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Ambitious, ad-free projects like Neeva will ultimately live and die by the level of privacy they genuinely offer consumers. Advertising privacy while still gleaning user-data simply won’t cut it. Just like the VPN market, those with a proven track record come out ahead and the pretenders are quickly found out. We’ll just have to wait and see if Neeva can live up to its early promises.

Still, the premise of a walled search engine and other services free from the monitoring and tracking that plagues the majority of popular search services is a promising one. How much many of us will be willing to pay for such a service is another question entirely.

The subscription-based model is popular in so many facets of online life these days, but would you pay for an ad-free search engine? Let us know in the poll below and share your thoughts in the comments.

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