Billions of people are part of the Google ecosystem, one way or another. There are more than 2 billion Android users in the world, with Google Search processing more than 3.5 billion search queries each day.
There are more than 1.5 billion active users of Gmail and Google Drive, the company’s cloud storage service that is fully integrated with Google Docs, a free alternative to Microsoft Office, probably reached more than 1 billion active users by now.
Google Maps, a service that comes preinstalled on most Android phones also has more than 1 billion active users.
And finally, YouTube is by far the most popular video streaming site in the world with near 2 billion users.
These numbers are staggering and when we include the fact that Google still earns most of its profit from its ad business that relies on private user data for serving personalized ads, these numbers turn into an unbelievably large amount of user profiles, each being made of bits of personal data.
Google is taking all kinds of private data
Personal data gathered from Android users, where Google track location along with a bunch of private data used for serving ads, is collected even if you avoid Google apps and services.
Google search collects location data along with each and every search query and in case you are visiting Google Search on Chrome while being signed in to your Google account, the company will also track sites you visit and ad clicks. And then we have the famous Google account, which is there to ease the whole login process to various Google services.
While it really makes sign-in to a dozen different sites and apps much simpler, it is also great for Google because it allows the company to store all kinds of private user data in one place. On top of data collected on Android, Chrome, and Search Google can store your email data (messages, address book, preferences), YouTube history and liked videos, all your photos (uploaded via Google Photos and used to train AI’s image recognizing skills), your schedule and meetings, notes and more from using Google Calendar, and all bunch of different private data in case you use Google Assistant and Google Home.
That’s a worryingly large collection of various private data and all that is available to Google to analyze, process, and store on its servers. And each and every user of any Google service has their data gathered and used by Google.
Just a few years ago the notion that a company holds all kinds of private data from all its users wouldn’t rock the boat.
Back then we also had huge security breaches that exposed private data of millions of people but we didn’t care because firstly, they were all isolated cases, secondly, no large internet company was in the middle of such a case, and finally the general consciousness about internet privacy wasn’t as high as it is right now so basically, no one cared about them having tons of data being stored online.
But after internet giants such as Yahoo, Facebook, and even Google suffered data breaches (especially Facebook, with 2018 seeing the company exposed in multiple cases) people started to care about their privacy. They started to think about what big companies have on them and to ask themselves do they really want to share their life with Google, or Facebook, Amazon, or some other internet giant.
And Google with its large number of services is, along with Facebook, the company that collects the largest amount of user data. Since Facebook has plenty of alternatives, the network saw a massive drop in market share during 2018. But what about Google?
In most cases, there are alternatives to Google services
Luckily, there are viable alternatives for most Google products and services, alternatives that aren’t hungry for personal data the way the largest internet company is.
iOS is there with Apple being adamant about protecting user’s privacy, and while the company does collect all kinds of private data it keeps it private. Further, iOS is much more secure than Android and iMessage is known for its end to end encryption.
Email alternatives like Outlook and iCloud mail are private and secure and if you want a complete end to end encryption there are services like ProtonMail. When it comes to cloud storage and photo upload services, the choices are aplenty and some of them (like iCloud storage and Dropbox) provide free service while keeping your data encrypted.
Quality Google Chrome alternatives are all around us with Firefox even offering a private browser for Android users. For those who don’t want to abandon Chrome’s speed, reliability, a huge library of handy extensions, and compatibility with almost all web-based services there are lots of browsers based on Chromium, the same open source project Chrome is based on. Opera, Vivaldi, and even Microsoft Edge (it will be pretty soon) are based on Chromium and support all features Chrome does while offering much better privacy.
Choices like Brave provide complete privacy while browsing the web while and at the same time offer excellent overall experience. But there are two places where Google virtually holds monopoly, its search service, and Google Maps, with Google Maps being part of Google Search on all platforms.
Dominating position of Google Search
Google Search is the most popular service the internet giant provides and by the number of daily search queries it is clear that billions use Google Search on a daily basis.
After all Google Search provides personalized results, it offers the most accurate results for most users, it is easy to use, and it works virtually on every device. And, what’s more important, it doesn’t have popular alternatives.
Bing is practically a desert and other alternatives such as Baidu and Yandex are tied to certain regions (China and Russia, respectively) and aren’t popular outside those regions. Google Search holds more than 90 percent of total search engine market, which is enough to call its position monopolistic. But things are changing and Google Search is getting hit from multiple sides.
First of all, we have Facebook, which dominates the online ad market along with Google. But Facebook is better when it comes to display ads, which are rising with the prominence of social networks like Instagram and Snapchat.
In other words, people are moving away from Google Search when it comes to ads they click on. Next, we have Amazon that surpassed Google and became the place to go when searching for products. And let’s not forget about Amazon Echo, a smash hit that promotes a new way of searching for products and using virtual assistants, and that is more popular than Google Home.
Ad revenue generated from Google Search also is affected by more and more ad blocker users. 30 percent of all internet users employ some form of ad blocker while browsing the web and the majority of ad block aficionados are millennials (the largest consumer group in the world) and big spenders.
But the perhaps the biggest hit Google’s search business can take could come from privacy oriented search engines.
The longing for a private search experience
Google Search collects data even when you’re logged off via an anonymous cookie that sends search queries and location data back to Google servers.
It seems that search is personalized even when you’re in logged out and in Incognito mode, which could mean that Google cannot live without using your private data for serving search results tailored specifically for you.
But this way of doing business is against recent pushes to protect user privacy that came from the EU with GDPR and with the moment in general public when more and more people are thinking about their privacy being kept well, private when online.
It’s known that the EU doesn’t like Google much (or Apple, or Amazon, or any other internet giant).
The latest $5 billion fine the EU charged Google with came because the company illegally used its mobile OS to dominate search market by bundling Chrome with Android and by making Google Search the default search engine on every device that shipped with Chrome.
Google was also fined by the French Data Protection Authority $57 million because the company isn’t transparent when it comes to how it collects and uses user data, which is in violation with the GDPR. This led to the rise of a new wave of privacy oriented search engines that will tackle Google’s hegemony in years to come.
France parliament and army announced that they will drop Google and use Qwant as their default search engine. Qwant is, along with DuckDuckGo at the forefront of this new privacy search push.
Qwant is based in France and provides private search service that recently saw a massive rise in popularity. It is integrated into a custom version of Firefox and is used by 21 million active users around the world.
The company will soon launch a mobile app that will bring private search to billions of Android users. The site goes beyond Google and offers additional search categories and advanced features like message boards. Since there are no data that is collected search results are the same all across the globe, unlike Google that provides personalized search results for each user, creating a sort of personalized internet microcosm made of your location, search history, preferences, ad data, and other data instead providing the same, unbiased result for all users that type the same search query.
The service is still just a drop in the sea that is Google Search but the recent trend of internet users’ growing animosity towards digital ads combined with tighter regulations, increased care about personal privacy, and increase in ad blocker usage resulted in Qwant increasing its user base massively.
Qwant isn’t the only private search service that is gaining ground.
Private search startups
Europe is filled with startups that offer private search, and some of them such as Start Page and SwissCows are more popular than ever in their countries of origin (Germany and France, respectively).
US-based DuckDuckGo is seeing a record number of daily search queries, with the number surpassing 30 million. That’s 50 percent increase year-on-year. Sure, these numbers are still small and cannot effectively endanger Google Search but they are a sign of new times, times when internet users cherish their privacy more than anything.
Generation Z (born between the mid-’90s and mid-00’s) is savvy when it comes to managing their internet privacy and know what data they want to share and what they want to keep for themselves.
Millennials are the most common users of ad blocking apps. These two groups are making the biggest chunk of daily internet users and you can expect that a notable percentage of these users discover private search engines. And in the wake of massive security breaches and growing dissatisfaction with how companies collect private data the push for online privacy will only become stronger.
This will lead to the even bigger rise of popularity of private search engines, but is that enough to take down the Google Search empire?
The future looks bright, sort of...
Private search engines alone cannot put a noticeable dent in Google Search business but a combination of factors would drive private search options to take a hefty chunk of search market share. And this scenario isn’t some far-fetched idea, it actually has real chances of happening over the course of the next couple of years.
First, private search engines have to establish a stronghold that will allow them to spread to a large number of users and one of them, Qwant, already took necessary steps in making that happen.
As we already mentioned, the search engine comes preinstalled on specific (language-specific version of Firefox) versions of Firefox but the most used version (English language-based) still use Google as the default search engine. But, if somehow Firefox (a company that's more and more focused on user privacy) gives Qwant, or DuckDuckGo a chance Google Search will see a massive blow to its popularity.
The next piece of the combination is the push to break up large internet companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others.
The idea slowly gains traction among the US public with Elizabeth Warren, one of the most notable 2020 US presidential race candidates from Democratic Party, openly promoting a plan to break up internet giants.
Other potential Democratic candidates like Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar are also for regulating tech giants but to a lesser degree. If Warren or any other Democrat gets elected in 2020 we may actually see Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others being broken into multiple entities.
This will lead to different services currently offered by these companies being cut one from another. Facebook and Instagram will be different entities, Amazon won’t be able to sell its Basics brand on the Amazon Store and Google, among other things, will be unable to ship Chrome and Google Search with Android phones.
It would also be disallowed for Google to offer Google Search as the default search engine in Chrome because the two businesses will be separate one from another.
This potential scenario could be a massive dose of fuel private search engines need to gain more users and become mainstream.
With Google potentially broken into lots of separate companies billions of Android and Google Chrome users would be able to choose freely between different search engines.
They will be able to opt for Google Search but this time that choice won’t be imposed and favored like it is now. Many of those choices will be excellent, privacy-oriented search engines that, in some cases, provide a better experience than Google, which will lead to a proper democracy in search engine market, something we don’t have today.
And that victory is just the kind of victory private search engines are looking to achieve.