Google will soon give “ethical” search engine Ecosia a more prominent place in Chrome, a move that comes as Google faces growing scrutiny over its anti-competitive practices.
In Chrome 81, which launches on March 17, Google will add Ecosia as an option to the four existing default search engine alternatives in dozens of countries, including the U.S., U.K. Brazil, Canada, Germany, France, Mexico, and Australia. The exact combination of alternative options varies from market to market, however.
It’s worth noting that it’s already possible to manually configure Chrome so that pretty much any website — including Ecosia — can be used as the default search engine. But now anyone looking to change their default search engine will see Ecosia listed alongside Google, Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo, which means they don’t need prior knowledge of its existence.
By changing the default search engine, anyone who uses the “omnibox” address bar at the top of their browser can stipulate which search engine provider delivers results.
Search and ye shall find
Ecosia isn’t exactly a household name, but the German company behind the search engine has been slowly gaining steam over the past 11 years. Its unique selling point is that it donates at least 80% of its profits to reforestation projects, meaning every search made on its website or app contributes in a small way to the planting of more trees. In fact, the company said it helps plant roughly one tree for every 45 searches, culminating in more than 86 million trees planted to date.
Ecosia is the brainchild of Christian Kroll, who, after graduating from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in 2007, was unsure what to do with his life. But he was certain of one thing: “I knew I didn’t want a run-of-the-mill corporate job.”
Like many recent graduates, Kroll elected to travel the world while mulling over his options. He ended up in Nepal, where he tried to launch a local search engine to finance development projects in the region. “It didn’t take off, as we only had access to electricity — and therefore the internet — for four hours a day,” he said. “Even if this didn’t quite work, it did make it clear to me that Google was making a lot of money from its search engine and that there was space in this market for an ethical alternative that used these profits to make the world a better place.”
On a subsequent journey through South America, Kroll witnessed the devastating impact of deforestation on the environment and local communities.
“In Argentina, for example, you can drive through huge soy farms and not see any signs of wildlife or the thriving ecosystems that were once there,” Kroll continued. “Whilst I was in South America, I discovered that up to 20% of Co2 emissions can be tracked to deforestation, and that really stuck with me. I also learned what an important role trees play, reducing carbon in the air; combating hunger, poverty, and extreme weather systems; and restoring biodiversity.”
These experiences served as the genesis for Ecosia, and in 2009 Kroll moved to Berlin to launch his new project with his sister and a few friends.
How Ecosia works
Ecosia offers a clean search interface, with a layout not unlike other search engines. There are the standard web results, with additional options for images, news, videos, and maps. It’s definitely worth noting that Ecosia is powered by Microsoft’s Bing search engine.
The interface will seem a little lacking in features to those accustomed to Google. For example, it doesn’t display business information in neat boxes with opening hours, contact information, and reviews. And it doesn’t offer the full array of knowledge boxes with answers to your pressing questions — e.g. “How many calories are in a Big Mac?” — within search results.
But Ecosia is never going to compete directly with Google on that front. Instead, it offers an “ethical alternative” to Google — on its homepage, it asks users to “search the web to plant trees,” with a rolling counter showing how many trees Ecosia has helped plant since its inception.
So how, exactly, does Ecosia fund all those trees, not to mention its internal operations? It all comes down to advertising — Ecosia serves relevant ads to users when they make a search, though this isn’t as hyper-personalized and targeted as ads on other search engines might be. Ecosia also promises not to track users around the web or sell data to third parties.
“This is the only way we make money,” Kroll said. “We’ve taken a privacy-centric approach to serving adverts to users — we don’t store searches permanently, and all searches are anonymized within a week. Many web services collect user data in order to sell it without asking your permission — we’ll never do this, and we don’t use external tracking tools either.”
That said, given its partnership with Bing, Ecosia does send along more data than some individuals might be comfortable with, such as IP address, user agent string (e.g. browser type and version and operating system), and settings (such as country and language).
“We’re committed to protecting users’ privacy, so there is no profiling of users based on where they are and what they are searching for,” Kroll added. “General location data is used to increase the relevancy of results on an individual query basis. On a practical level, this prevents you from getting results for restaurants in Berlin, Germany if you live in Berlin, New Hampshire, for example. Data from that process is then deleted after a week, meaning that we — purposefully — know very little about our users. We could probably make a lot more money than we do, but we’ve balanced a privacy-centric, ethical approach with the need to raise funds to plant trees.”
Put simply, Ecosia isn’t the ultimate privacy search engine, but it hopes that its “not as bad as Google” approach will be enough to win over some users and build a sustainable business that helps the planet.
Ecosia said it has been funding tree planting projects since 2010, though it only became profitable in 2015. In 2019, Ecosia reported that it made €19.3 million ($21.7 million) in revenue, with around €7.8 million ($8.8 million) of that covering costs, such as salaries and taxes. Of the remaining €11.5 million ($13 million) in revenue, the company said 80% went directly to planting trees, while the remaining money was put into its solar plants.
Ecosia started building its own solar plants back in 2018, and it now has two such sites located in Aue (531 kWp) and Schinne (199 kWp) in Germany.
Today, Ecosia claims its servers are powered entirely by renewable energy — but more than that, it is now Co2 negative and is pushing to produce twice as much solar power as it actually needs in 2020. “This way, we’re actively crowding out dirty energy from the grid,” the company proudly proclaims.
But despite its modest successes over the past decade, there is no denying Ecosia is very much a David to Google’s Goliath.
The Google factor
Google has faced numerous complaints of anticompetitive behavior over the years, and in 2018 EU antitrust regulators levied a record $5 billion fine for the way it bundled its services on Android, effectively forcing phone manufacturers to preinstall certain Google apps to gain access to others. In response to the fine, Google introduced a complete overhaul of its Android licensing model in Europe, a process that included an auction for alternative search engines interested in being featured in a “choice screen” during an Android phone’s initial setup.
Ecosia was one of the providers that opted out of the auction, calling the process “unethical and anticompetitive.” But Ecosia’s opposition evidently wasn’t enough to deter Google from offering its smaller rival the chance to be a default search engine option buried in the settings menu of Chrome. According to Google, the alternative default search engine options for each country are based entirely on local popularity, meaning Ecosia’s recent growth likely played a big part in its placement.
“Unlike the Android ‘choice screen,’ which doesn’t really present a fair choice at all, being added as a default option in Chrome is determined by [the] usefulness to the user, rather than … the ability to pay for the privilege,” Kroll said. “This is a fairer system, and a step in the right direction for competitiveness in the search engine market.”
Ecosia said its monthly active users nearly doubled in 2019, growing from 8 million to 15 million. At least part of this growth can likely be attributed to the fires that engulfed the Amazon rainforest last year, a crisis that led to a more than 1,000% increase in downloads in a single day, according to Kroll.
Ecosia currently has 55 employees, most of whom are based in its Berlin office, though the company also said it helps support the employment of “several thousand” tree-planters in the developing world. The U.S. could become a key growth market for the company — Ecosia currently claims more than 1.5 million monthly active users across the country, with Kroll noting that the company saw a 242% increase in searches year-on-year between February 2019 and February 2020. Moreover, Ecosia recently hired a new remote-based North American country manager to help drive adoption in the region.
“Ecosia’s growth over the last year shows just how invested users are in the fight against the climate crisis,” Kroll continued. “Everywhere, people are weighing up the changes they can make to reduce their carbon footprint, including adopting technologies such as Ecosia. Our addition to Chrome will now make it even easier for users to help reforest delicate, at-risk, and often devastated ecosystems and to fight climate change just by using the internet.”