Elgan on Tech

Google and Microsoft have gone too far

Google and Microsoft are using dark pattern design to trick or force users to do things they never intended. Is it time to switch to more ethical search engines? (We list 10 alternatives.)

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Google is an advertising company. And advertising revenue is always under siege -- from competitors, regulators and market forces.

Today, around 70 percent of Google's revenue comes from advertising, according to a "featured snippet" on Google Search.

Meanwhile, shareholders expect solid growth. But how do you achieve that with a fickle and fragile business like online advertising. One approach is to resort to dirty tricks.

Google is an advertising company. And advertising revenue is always under siege -- from competitors, regulators and market forces.

Today, around 70 percent of Google's revenue comes from advertising, according to a "featured snippet" on Google Search.

Meanwhile, shareholders expect solid growth. But how do you achieve that with a fickle and fragile business like online advertising. One approach is to resort to dirty tricks.

Google redesigned the look of desktop Search so that ads look like organic results. The typography and placement is the same. And the new look places favicons next to legitimate search results, and a small "ad" icon next to advertising that looks like another favicon. The design is a clear example of "dark pattern" design created to change the user's behavior in a way that benefits Google at your expense. "(Around press time Google announced on Twitter that because of user feedback, they would begin testing new designs to address public concern.)

This aggressive and unethical change no doubt aims to keep Google on top in online advertising market share, where the company currently enjoys 36.2 percent share.

Google wants to keep you on Google

Google's latest moves appear to be based on a growing reluctance to send users to other sites, where other companies can make money on those users.

In a move against Pinterest, Facebook and Reddit, Google resurrected the "Collections" idea from its dead social network, Google+, and placed it into Search. (Collections was a Pinterest-like feature of the social network that enabled users to "pin" items of interest on their social profiles. The move is part of Google's social strategy of "baking" Google+ features into other properties, which I detailed last month in this space.)

Unlike the Collections on Google+, the new Collections feature of Google Search on the mobile app now uses AI pixie dust to help you choose items to "pin" based on your search history. Collections replaces the "recent searches" tab. And, of course, you can share your collections and invite them to participate.

And in a clear move against Amazon, Google also recently promoted Google Shopping results to the main search results page. Even some product reviews will now be visible from the search results page.

Now about half of all searches are served on Google properties, inside knowledge panels, YouTube and so on. Google clearly intends to grow that percentage.

Not all of Google's recent moves have been objectionable. Google has an outstanding search engine that came out of beta and also went mobile this week. It's called Dataset Search, and it's designed for researchers but anyone can benefit from it. Dataset Search, which launched in September 2018, gives access to 25 million datasets owned by thousands of data repositories from libraries, publishers and others. It's also great for journalism or doing research for enterprise technology purchases.

Still, revenue growth, apparently, will now be driven by Google tricking users into clicking on ads and providing alternatives to external destinations on the Google Search results page.

Maybe Bing is better?

Microsoft parties like it's 1999

And by "parties" I mean "engages in browser hijacking."

Microsoft plans to force a change in the default browser from Google Search to its own Bing search engine for PCs running Office 365 ProPlus during that product's twice-yearly upgrade. The browser-hijacking policy, which is effected with a Chrome extension, goes into effect next month and begins with version 2002 and in the nations of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, the U.K. and the U.S.

ProPlus comes with Office 365 Enterprise E3, Office 365 Enterprise E5 and other versions of Office designed for large organizations.

It's not a bug; it's a feature, according to Microsoft. The purpose of the policy is to enable Microsoft Search, which searches Bing and the users' PC at the same time. (One would think that the desktop-search integration would exist to incentivize voluntary adoption of Bing.)

The company said they'd switch the default search engine in Firefox later.

The extension won't be installed if Bing is the current default, so the easiest way to avoid the change is to switch to Bing before the update, then switch it back after.

Both Google's ad confusion policy and Microsoft's browser-hijacking policy are unethical.

These bold changes are part of a larger shift apparent in the culture in general, including politics: People are overwhelmed with information and therefore aren't really paying attention. Distraction is the opportunity.

Google can claim that it marked ads as ads, while knowing that most users won't see the difference. Microsoft can claim that it gave explicit instructions for restoring Google Search as the default for users forcibly switched, while knowing that people generally accept default choices without taking the time to figure out how to reverse them.

I see Google's and Microsoft's latest moves as part of a wider "Ignorance Industrial Complex," where the public's distracted and overloaded minds are resources to be exploited for profit.

Maybe it's time to switch to more ethical search engines? 

Google without Google

startpage privacy browser Startpage

Startpage doesn't record your IP address, browser brand, operating system or search queries.

Startpage is one of the most interesting privacy search engines out there because it's the only third-party search engine with access to the full Google search index.

Startpage isn't new. It started out as Ixquick in 1998 and became the Dutch company Startpage B.V. in 2000 through acquisition and is currently a subsidiary of Privacy One Group. Interestingly, the service grew more privacy-focused gradually, especially in 2005.

Next to every search result is a link that says "Anonymous View." Choosing that link opens the URL via proxy, which extends your privacy from the search engine to the sites you click on.

The search engine doesn't record users' IP addresses, browser brands, operating systems or search queries.

Bing without MIcrosoft

Verizon this week introduced a new privacy-centered search engine called OneSearch, which uses Bing's search index but which promises no cookies, retargeting, personal profiling, sharing of user data with advertisers and no retention of search history. Verizon monetizes OneSearch with contextual advertising based exclusively on the current search terms.

OneSearch uses Microsoft's Bing index.

Sounds good. But critics point out Verizon's history of customer privacy violations, including user-tracking supercookies, selling users' personal information and cooperation with NSA surveillance -- not to mention lobbying Congress for the legal right to sell user data and violate net neutrality. Verizon: Can you hear me now?

Here are 10 great privacy-oriented search alternatives:

  1. DuckDuckGo
  2. Search Encrypt
  3. Swisscows
  4. Gibiru
  5. Yippy
  6. Bitclave
  7. Oscobo
  8. Discrete Search
  9. Qwant
  10. Startpage

(The EU recently forced Google to add DuckDuckGo as one of the default search engines available to European users of Android.)

Something is wrong with search

The bottom line is that something fundamental has changed in the world of search engines. It's time for us and our organizations to re-think how and where we search.