How to lessen your exposure to Google

I’ll occasionally mention in passing the various alternatives to Google that I use for web browsing, search, and email, but I haven’t talked about it in much detail. I sometimes get funny looks from people when they hear me say that I try to avoid using Google services — like I’m some kind of internet conspiracy theorist. But it’s really not about Google being some kind of big evil company. And it’s not about getting rid of Google altogether. And it’s not even really all about Google. The services and social networks we use every day (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) collect data about us and use it to target ads at us as well as to inform the development of their own platforms.

This isn’t necessarily an inherently bad thing, but I prefer to take some measures to maintain my personal privacy. What follows is not some kind of idealist manifesto, but rather a measured response to the data collection and user tracking practices that have become an industry standard.

Aside from privacy, I think it’s always good to foster competition. Instead of just defaulting to Google for whatever it is you’re trying to do, consider the other options available.

Search

Perhaps the easiest way to lessen your exposure to Google is to use a different search engine. All major web browsers that I know of allow you to set the default search engine – even Google Chrome. My personal favorite is DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo labels itself as the search engine that doesn’t track you. The folks at DuckDuckGo go out of their way to protect your privacy. Unlike many services, reading their privacy policy does not give you that icky, deal-with-the-devil feeling.

In addition to helping you preserve your anonymity in search, it also has some pretty cool features. Like Google, it will often provide answers to your search directly at the top of the page in the form of Instant Answers. There’s some cool stuff here (a stopwatch!) and if you’re the tinkering type, you can even contribute your own Instant Answers.

My favorite feature is what DuckDuckGo calls bangs. Let’s say you’re on DuckDuckGo but what you really intend to do is click the first Wikipedia result that shows up. Simply add !w to the end of your search query and you will be automatically sent over to Wikipedia’s search page. DuckDuckGo has bangs for many other services – including Google (!g) and Google Images (!gi), for those times that you really just need Google. Other favorites include YouTube (!yt), Amazon (!a), and Creative Commons (!cc).

Here’s some more features of DuckDuckGo in a more illustrated format:

Web browsing

I catch a lot of flak for this sometimes, but I like to use Apple’s Safari (instead of Google Chrome) for general web browsing as well as web development. I don’t have any kind of smoking gun regarding Google Chrome and the data it collects. And I’m pretty sure Safari also collects a good bit of information that it sends to Apple. To me the difference is that Google is primarily an advertising company and Apple is primarily a device manufacturer. I feel like Google has a higher incentive than Apple to collect my personal information and use it in ways that I might not be okay with. I do still install Google Chrome on my system as it is an excellent web browser and sometimes I do need it in the course of my job, but my default browser is Safari.

Since I use several Apple devices, I like using Safari to sync my browsing history in order to reduce the amount of typing and searching I have to do to find things like articles I’ve read previously, etc. Again, I know I’m sending a lot of information to Apple, but I just trust Apple more than Google.

And if you don’t really trust Google or Apple, you can always go with Mozilla Firefox.

Ad blocking and browsing privacy

Ads are not all bad, but many websites will run ads and third-party JavaScript that can collect a lot of data, track you, and make web pages bloated and sluggish. Instead of opting in by default to any arbitrary ad or script, I like to turn on ad blocking and then whitelist the services or third-party scripts that I don’t mind running. I install two browser extensions to make this happen: AdBlock and Ghostery. AdBlock does exactly what it says on the tin. Ghostery goes a bit further and blocks all those annoying social widgets and things that tend to slow web pages down. If there’s a widget I really want to see, I can tell Ghostery to allow it on every website or just the one I’m currently viewing. Using ad blockers is not all about getting rid of ads. It’s about protecting your privacy and browsing the web more securely.

Be warned, though, that some websites will put up a wall if they detect that you are using an ad blocker. They may ask you to pay up or otherwise disable the ad blocker on their site if you want to continue browsing. I’ve never hit one of these walls on a website that I wasn’t willing to give up. So when I encounter this practice I usually just leave and get my information elsewhere. I realize that people who run these websites need to make money, but the onus is on them to figure out how to do that in a way acceptable to the consumer. If I choose to go elsewhere, that’s my choice to make. It’s no different than going to the car lot across the street because the one you’re at isn’t giving you a good deal.

Email

I’m saving the best for last because one of the biggest switches I’ve made — and the one I’m probably most excited about – is my email provider. Most people probably don’t give much thought to who their email provider is. And it’s most likely going to be Google or Apple (or maybe Yahoo or one’s ISP). The upside to these services is that they don’t cost you anything. Well, you know, other than your privacy. And not to mention the fact that these services can block you from your account at any time making it impossible for you to access your email. This has happened to people.

You might not think about it, but email is critical to your online identity. I worked briefly in customer support for a well-known tech company and we would get so many requests from people who had forgotten their passwords or had otherwise lost access to their accounts. We would tell them that if they could email us from the email address they joined our service with, then that would be enough verification for us to believe that they were who they professed to be and we could help them reset their passwords. But not everyone would have access to the email address that they had initially signed up with. Because of that we had to tell many people that we could not give them access to the accounts they wanted.

That was just one service. But think about it. Your email is the hub for every online service that you’ve ever registered with. That’s a lot of responsibility, and a lot of trust that you need to put in your email provider.

So several years ago I switched to Pobox, a service that is only about email1. There’s no ads because you pay a yearly fee for your email service. At the time of this writing the cost is just $50 a year (which is about $4 a month). This makes you the customer — not some advertiser that wants your data. If you need help with anything, you can get very timely and helpful support (try getting that from Google – unless you’re an advertiser they’re not going to help you much). You can set up your email account with your own domain name if you choose. This is nice because once you have an email address like name@yoursite.com, you can keep that email address forever, even if you decide to use a different email service in the future. You’ll be able to take that name with you because it’s your own domain name2.

Making a choice

These are just a few of the areas in which I’ve moved away from Google and taken steps to assert some control over my online assets. It’s worth mentioning that I’m not boycotting Google and I still use them at various times for various things. What I’m saying is make a choice — any choice, even Google — over using Google services by default without thought.


  1. Pobox was recently acquired by FastMail, another independent email provider. I’m usually wary of such acquisitions, but in this case it was a good move and it helps ensure that there will be a solid alternative to Big Data email providers for years to come. 

  2. If you’ve been handing out an “@gmail.com” address to people, it can be hard to switch email services when you suddenly decide you don’t want Google bots reading your email. I recommend switching to an email address you control and forwarding your GMail to it.