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A closer look at Britain's first anonymous search engine

Oscobo is the only UK-based Privacy Search Engine that does not track or store users’ data. The company was founded on the belief that personal data should remain just that, personal, and has set out to turn the tables to favour the Internet user instead of serving interests of big companies. This article will highlight the importance of understanding how user data is being tracked and used by search engines, and how using an anonymous option has clear benefits.

1. Why did you decide to create an anonymous search engine?

Before founding Oscobo, we worked in global technology companies throughout the dot com boom. During this time we both began to truly understand the level and extent to which online user data was being manipulated by companies. We decided to create a unique platform to make a difference to conscious online users like ourselves.

In the early days of search and Internet use, there was an unspoken social contract between the Internet user and the publisher of a website. It was agreed that the user would look at a couple of adverts in exchange for free content. However with the rise of real time bidding and programmatic buying, we started to feel quite uncomfortable with what we felt was the user not getting a fair deal anymore. It was clear that the user needed an alternative and that is why we decided to launch a truly private search engine. One that gives pure search results on the search terms users choose, rather than being shown commercially driven results.

2. How is Oscobo different from other search engines that focus on privacy?

Oscobo is UK-centric and therefore serves specifically unique results relevant to users in this country. This is the first search engine of its kind and allows you to simply have a truly organic search experience related to an area. For example, if you were to search ‘bank account’ into other privacy search engines, you would be presented with banking information pertaining to financial institutions based in the US; meaning you have to manually change the default localisation settings to the UK. Oscobo however assigns the default to the UK, streamlining the results to benefit the UK consumer without having to amend search preferences and avoid having to apply cookies to remember the changes. No cookies, means no tracking, so we are true to our promise to not save any user data which can be used to influence the search results.

3. What is the difference between this service and the incognito modes offered by popular search engines?

Whilst Incognito mode or privacy browsing offers the user a degree of privacy (i.e. not storing cookies or browsing history locally on your computer or device), it does not stop the platform providers from tracking your digital footprint. For instance by searching the browser history in Google, you will see that the search results under incognito mode is also logged should the user be logged into Google at the time.

In terms of searching under incognito mode, most search engines still record your searches and even where you click through to from your IP address. This isn’t completely private. Oscobo doesn’t track your IP or use cookies with or without Incognito mode. The search engine provides users with pure search results and once they have left the site, their information is forgotten.

4. Does the average user understand the extent to which they are being tracked or profiled?

Users do understand that they are being monitored and tracked to some degree. However the true extent and sheer velocity in which they are being tracked, we believe is unknown to the average search engine user.

The fact is that throughout almost every point of a user’s journey, search engine providers are instinctively and accurately tracking behaviour and preferences. This is true even when a user is already a number of pages into their search, which inevitably effects the future results that are displayed to that particular user – and over a period of time an online user profile is developed. This online profile, which is constantly being added to every time a user searches, is then used to paint a distinct digital image of who they are and their preferences. This information is highly valuable to third party advertisers and is usually sold off at a high price for promotional purposes.

5. What happens with personal data that is collected and stored on most search engines?

This data is often used to inform targeted advertising, behavioural pricing, and other statistical/data research for marketing purposes. The average Internet user doesn’t understand how much of their data is used for marketing and targeting purposes to present them with offers and products that companies think they would like.

6. Can’t targeted advertisements based on search behaviour be beneficial to users?

Most definitely, that is what targeted advertisements are designed for and can be relevant and useful to the particular individual, but at what cost? However the velocity, accuracy of products and repetition of that targeted advertisement can vary massively and inevitably make that particular advertisement irrelevant.

Another option to consider is that every single search journey is fundamentally unique and the user may not be looking to purchase or sell anything every time they use a search engine. It is found that predominantly targeted adverts are placed to encourage the intention to buy and therefore if a user is looking to find out historical information, they are not interested in purchasing something and being bombarded by adverts can be off-putting.

7. So you don’t have any advertising in your search results?

Oscobo like most search engines is funded by advertising revenue. The decision was made to have a limit of two adverts at the top of the search results and to not provide adverts or search results based on a user’s profile, but based purely on their search words.

Oscobo also will not communicate any information on users if they do not click on the ads, whereas other search engines will collate all this information regardless of if the user clicks through or not.

8. Can users have a personalised search experience and not sacrifice their data privacy?

It would be extremely difficult for the average Internet user to have the personal search experience while monitoring how much of their data is being tracked. To achieve this successfully, a person will have to be aware of all of the tracking mechanisms that are used on search engines, plus know how to either turn them off or avoid them. This is very difficult to do.

9. How you think user opinion and behaviour will change when it comes to protecting personal data in the next 5 years?

If you take 2015 as an example, we have seen a distinct focus on the media and user understanding around data privacy, security and the extent to which people are being monitored when operating online in a variety of forms. We believe this trend is only going to increase as people begin to become better educated in what footprint they are leaving online. Users will continue to understand that the level of monitoring, storing and usage of their personal data is not needed and frankly being taken without their knowledge.

10. Why focus on the UK market first?

Firstly we are a UK company paying UK taxes and are based in the UK. However, we began our focus in the UK as we see a clear demand and gap in the market for a dedicated service. Other companies, such as DuckDuckGo, have focused on their prospective regions such as the US, limiting the level of service to UK customers. By this I mean that their results are US-centric and may not be as accurate or relevant as Oscobo.

We also saw that the average UK Internet user is amongst some of the most advanced and active users globally, so the need to provide a service which protects their search privacy made sense.

11. Is anonymous search only useful to hackers and people who want to hide what they are doing?

Definitely not. Users are normal everyday individuals that simply want more natural and relevant search results from their online activity and do not want their personal data being stored or shared. As mentioned earlier the user will only receive true, organic results from the terms that they have entered into the search engine, a clean slate for each search if you will and when they return the same will happen again.

Oscobo provides UK users with another option for an online search engine which they can use with the safe mind that they aren’t being tracked and that their data isn’t being used to profile them to present assumed results.

12. What does the next 5 years look like for Oscobo?

The next five years will see Oscobo being launched in new regions, but still offering localised search results as done in the UK. The users play an important part in the development of the search engine, and we plan to listen to them when launching further features and website enhancements. The future will see Oscobo evolving to allow our users' journeys to be as seamless and unobtrusive as possible, and delivering the best search results across platforms and devices – all while continuing to uphold their privacy.

Rob Perin, Co Founder and Managing Director, ‎Oscobo