Ad-Free Search, Where People Aren’t the Product

Jan 25, 2023

As the digital world becomes further ingrained into our everyday lives, users are becoming more and more aware of the extent to which their personal data can be used to influence their online experiences and just how much of that data they may have unknowingly given away. With this awareness comes the desire to protect personal information, giving rise to a new kind of search engine – ad-free.  

 Historically, online search has always been free; however, the actual cost was never money but data. Search engines represent the world’s largest sources of user data, collecting everything from browsing history to form data. This data is then leveraged toward advertisers, allowing them to target users based on specific interests or demographics. Technically this doesn’t count as selling your data, but it’s a loophole morally ambiguous enough to make people feel exploited. 

 What Ad-Free Does Differently 

 The most obvious difference between ad-free and traditional search engines is, of course, the lack of ads. But, in addition to freeing up space on the results page, the absence of ads also represents the absence of user data. There is no reason to collect browser data and IP addresses in order to show results for popular kids’ toys at Christmas or how to change a tire. Traditional search engines only collect this information for their advertisers. 

 In addition to search engines, most search companies also have what’s called a display ad network. It’s a collection of advertising space that spans billions of websites, like the internet equivalent of billboards. However, the content that is displayed is directly influenced by user data. Have you ever noticed how previous products and websites you’ve visited seem to follow you around through your ads? That’s the power of the display network using your data to show content you might find relevant. So, when a search engine says it’s ad-free, it’s talking about more than just a cleaner results page. 

 What’s the Catch? 

 Revenue is a necessary part of any business model. Instead of advertisers, ad-free search engines rely on user subscriptions to fund their operations. However, this model incentivizes serving the interests of users over advertisers.  

 Quality Over Quantity 

 Why should businesses care about the rise of ad-free search? Because it aligns with consumer trends we’ve been seeing since the pandemic – a focus on experience. Search is, at its core, a way to find information and seek out answers. When you need to answer a question, you want the best answer, not just “an answer.” Free of advertising influences, content relevancy becomes the primary measurement for results, meaning content quality will need to be a primary focus for businesses looking to keep those first-page results.