In this guide you will learn about:
- Why using Google services can harm your privacy
- Privacy friendly alternatives to Google Search
- Privacy friendly alternatives to Gmail
- Privacy friendly alternatives to Google Maps
There’s no shortage of good reasons to move away from using Google services. After all, Google’s business model is based on monitoring its users’ activities, building detailed profiles on them, and granting access to its troves of user data to the highest bidder(s). And given how revealing things like web search, email, and digital maps can be, the data we’re feeding Google is quite valuable indeed.
But is it reasonable to hand over intimate details of your life to a mammoth-sized corporation in exchange for web search, email, or maps? I doubt it, as do millions of others who enjoy the benefits of a Google-free internet.
But now, Australians may have another reason for moving away from Google. And, to be honest, given Google’s reaction in this matter, I think that, in the end, we’re all incentivized to find Google alternatives.
In December 2020, the Australian government started discussing judicial changes to its body of laws that would force online giants like Google and Facebook to pay a higher (read: fair) price for the news stories they obtain from local news publishers.
The reasoning behind the proposed legislation is to provide support and relief to Australia’s local media landscape. In most countries, local media has had a hard time competing with the likes of Google and Facebook. For local news content to be viewed by a significant number of people, it now has to be fed to users through Google and Facebook. When that happens, news publishers obtain peanuts for their content, compared to what they could get from a user subscription or even a visit to the original news site.
Funding local news content is critical for communities worldwide, for access to a plurality of viewpoints and sources. The alternative is that we end up getting our information from the same small number of sources. Not exactly enlightening, right?
Well, in reaction to this proposed change, Google has threatened to leave Australia altogether. A bit like a three-year-old pulling a tantrum and then trying to get its way with threats after being told that they need to share their toys. Not exactly the kind of company I want a relationship with – especially given the fact that as a Google user, you’re not actually a customer. You’re a product.
So this gives us all just another reason to look for Google alternatives. It’s actually very easy, and there are many more options than you might think. Occasionally sticking your head out of Google-world tends to be eye-opening, as we’ll see.
In this post, we’re going to look at some of the best Google alternatives for search, email, and maps. We’ll also look at what’s involved in making the switch.
If Google wants to stop providing services in your country, I say, “let them.” Alternatives are easy to find, and, in many cases, you’ll be better served with alternate services than with Google.
Let’s start with search.
Google’s search engine is its crown jewel. It’s also seen as being the “best” search engine available. But what does that mean? It means that Google tends to place the most relevant results (to you) at the top, making it easy to find what you’re looking for. That makes sense.
But how does Google achieve this? By keeping tabs on every other search term you’ve ever entered into its search engine. That’s right. Google is quite good at predicting your interests because it’s been building a detailed profile about you, your habits, and your interests from day one.
If you’re logged in to any Google services as you use its search engine, then Google definitely knows who you are. And suppose you aren’t logged in to any Google services. In that case, Google will still be able to make an educated guess on your identity, based on any number of data points taken together: your IP address and geolocation, your web browser’s configuration, Google cookies previously written to your hard drive, etc.
Google’s resilience is all based on identifying and tracking your activities. Imagine if Google was a person staring over your shoulder, keeping tabs on what you search for and making inferences about your behavior, rather than an invisible algorithm. Pretty creepy, right? Well, the only difference is that you’re not aware that an algorithm is staring over your shoulder and that the algorithm is much better at tracking you than any human would be. Oh, and the algorithm never forgets… anything.
When you switch to a privacy-preserving search engine, the results you’re looking for might be a bit further down the results page. But that’s a feature, not a bug. The reason why the relevant search results might be a bit lower is that the search engine hasn’t identified you or tracked your previous searches. So it isn’t skewing the results based on what it thinks you’re looking for. It’s showing you an objective representation of what’s available on the internet based on your search terms.
So, yes, it might take you half a second longer to find what you’re looking for because you need to scroll down the page a little bit. That’s the trade-off to make if you want to enhance your digital privacy. I’m more than happy with that deal. But it’s up to each person to make up their own mind.
If you do want to make the switch, here are some good Google search alternatives.
Duckduckgo is a privacy-focused search engine that was started in 2008 by Gabriel Weinberg. His goal was to provide a search engine that didn’t collect user data for monetization. Duckduckgo is still monetized, though much less aggressively than Google.
In its default mode, Duckduckgo will display sponsored results at the top, based on the relevancy of your search terms, not your identity or your known habits (Duckduckgo doesn’t know your habits). These ads are clearly identified and can also be disabled on Duckduckgo’s Settings page.
Duckduckgo’s search results only change over time if the content available on the internet changes. Again, it will never skew the results to display what it thinks is most relevant to you. And again, that’s a feature, not a bug.
Duckduckgo is my search engine of choice, and I highly recommend it.
If ducks aren’t your thing, another solid option is Startpage.
Startpage is another privacy-focused search engine that was founded in 1998 in the Netherlands. Like Duckduckgo, Startpage does not collect your search history, nor does it attempt to identify you. Your search results will reflect the state of the internet and won’t be tampered with for “personalization.”
Another nice thing about Startpage is that if you click on the little “mask” icon to the left of each result, you can view the page through Startpage’s proxy server for extra anonymity. When you use the Startpage proxy server, websites you visit will only see the proxy server’s IP address, not your actual IP address, affording you a bit more privacy when browsing the web.
Two things you should be aware of are:
Using the proxy is likely to slow down your internet connection significantly.
If you log in to any services through the proxy, you will be identified, defeating the point of using the proxy server in the first place.
Another thing you can do is change your default search engine in your browser to Duckduckgo. Startpage is not available as a default option in web browsers.
I’m going to show you how to achieve this in Mozilla Firefox. I chose Firefox because it’s open-source and comes with many privacy-preserving options built-in. And, of course, if you’re using Google Chrome as your web browser, I recommend switching to Firefox.
1. Click the Options or Preferences (Mac) icon at the top right, and select Options or Preferences (Mac).
2. From the options on the left side of the Options page, select Search.
3. Click the Search drop-down menu and select Duckduckgo.
4. Close the Options page.
You’re done. From now on, when you use your search bar, the results will come from Duckduckgo.
Email is another area in which Google has a dominant position. But this one is a bit more difficult to understand. It’s not as if Gmail provides users with any real benefit over other email providers. And calendar integration is supported by almost every email provider out there.
So why is Gmail so popular? I think the old adage, In for a penny, in for a pound, applies here. I think Gmail’s popularity is due to the popularity of Google’s other services, namely, search and maps. Then it just seems to make sense to stick with what you know. And perhaps the benefit of using one login to access multiple services can also be appealing.
That makes sense. But there’s a downside – and it isn’t small. Gmail scans all of your emails for anything it can glean about you and your contacts from your emails. This information is added to your Google profile and monetized by Google by selling these profiles to the highest bidder(s). Advertisers will obviously be buying access here, but Google will sell access to its database to whoever throws money at it: advertisers, governments, private individuals.
How does that make you feel that the contents of your private conversations are being sold? And why do you think Gmail is free? Google isn’t doing you a favor by giving you a Gmail account; it’s just thinking of its bottom line. In that regard, a Gmail address can be seen as a bit of a trojan horse.
Let’s look at some good Gmail alternatives.
Tutanota is a secure email provider based in Germany. I say secure because it provides end-to-end encrypted emails between Tutanota users. Encrypting your email end-to-end means that nobody, not even the email provider, can read your email except the intended recipient.
While that’s great, we’re not looking for an encrypted email solution right now. All we want is an alternative to Gmail. And Tutanota fits the bill brilliantly.
You can create a Tutanota email account for free. Your free account will grant you 1GB of email storage – which should be more than enough for most people. And you can use that account exactly as you used your Gmail account. The only changes are the email address itself and the webmail interface you use.
Signing up is easy.
1. Go to tutanota.com and click Get Encrypted Email.
2. Select your account type (free or paid). A paid account provides additional features, detailed below.
3. Create an email address and choose your password.
4. You’re done.
Do note that it can take up to 48 hours for your account to become active. Tutanota states that this is to set up your account securely. It’s a bit of a bummer, but accounts are ready for use within 24 hours in many cases.
Tutanota email accounts also come with an integrated calendar.
If you don’t want an email provider that scans your emails, Tutanota is a great choice.
Posteo is another very good Gmail alternative. It isn’t free, but it’s cheap. And it won’t scan your emails either.
The service is, like Tutanota, based in Germany. It costs one euro per month (roughly 1.20 USD), and I think it’s more than worth it.
Posteo’s commitment to user privacy and sustainable energy is rather impressive. It runs solely on green energy, and its entire infrastructure is open source. Posteo doesn’t collect any logs relative to user activity and even strips your originating IP address from all the emails you send too. That’s really very good for privacy. It means that when you send an email to your friend who still uses Gmail, Google won’t be able to trace your email back to your IP address and perform its Big Data voodoo on you (though Google will still scan the email).
Signing up to posteo is also very straightforward.
1. Go to posteo.de and click Sign Up.
2. Choose an email address and a password.
3. Select a payment amount and a payment method.
4. Confirm your email address and your payment.
5. You’re done.
There’s no delay in activating your Posteo account. As soon as your payment has cleared, your account is available to use.
Your Posteo account also includes a calendar and notes.
It’s another great Gmail alternative that respects your privacy.
This one is a bit more complicated than the others. Google Maps is the best Maps app available. That’s true. But everything else that’s true about Google is true about Google Maps. That means it identifies you, locates you, saves your location searches and itineraries, and sells access to that data to whoever throws money at it. And so there’s good reason to switch. But this is one switch where the drop in convenience may be more pronounced than with search or email.
One reason for this is that no company on Earth has more mapping data than Google. And alternate services have trouble competing with Google Maps for things like business locations.
Another reason for this is that there just aren’t that many good quality competing services.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.
Apple has taken a rather strong stance on user privacy these past years. And it has been bolstering its Maps app regularly in recent years as well.
Apple’s Maps app collects much, much less data than Google Maps. It still collects the information it needs to provide you with the Maps data you requested, but your location searches aren’t tied to your identity.
You can learn more about this by reading about Apple Maps’ data collection practices.
Now, this can be all fine and good if you have Apple devices. But what if you don’t?
Well, it turns out that you can perform location searches in Duckduckgo from any device, and Duckduckgo will use Apple Maps to fulfill the search. Not only that, Duckduckgo doesn’t send any personally identifiable information to Apple to achieve this.
Here’s what Duckduckgo had to say about this:
“We do not send any personally identifiable information such as IP address to Apple or other third parties. For local searches, where your approximate location information is sent by your browser to us, we discard it immediately after use. You are still anonymous when you perform map and address-related searches on DuckDuckGo.”
This means that anyone, on any device, can use Apple Maps rather than Google Maps and enhance their location privacy. And you don’t even need an extra app. All you need is a web browser.
1. From your web browser, go to https://duckduckgo.com.
2. Type the address you’re looking for in the search field and press Enter.
3. Click the Maps link right under the search bar. The full Maps page is displayed.
You can zoom and scroll and click points of interest for more information.
You can also get directions from Apple Maps. To do that, follow the steps above, and once you’re on the full Maps page, click the Directions button, right under the search bar.
You’ll be provided with itineraries on your left. Simply click the itinerary of your choice and follow the directions. It defaults to driving directions, but you can also select walking directions.
Do note that this won’t provide you with turn-by-turn vocal prompts – it’s not a GPS. But if location privacy is important to you, this is the way to go. And nothing’s stopping you from using your GPS in situations where you feel written directions won’t be enough. You have the information and can make the right decisions for yourself.
So there you have it. Living within the Google ecosystem can make it seem as if there are no other options. But that’s just not the case. There are other options out there – some of which do a better job than Google. But all of the options listed in this post will enhance your privacy. While there may be some trade-offs, they’re mostly minor. And none of them will seriously hamper your digital lifestyle.
If Google wants to make this a choice between being able to pick and choose the laws it follows or threatening to cease its operations, I say “good riddance.” There are better options. And they’re more private too.