Trees for Search? – AD#4

Every day I search for things…. I open a tab, type some words and as if by magic…. Google tells me stuff.

What I don’t usually do is think about the consequences of this, of the environmental impact of racks of servers in some data centre, sucking in power and chucking out heat as they compute the search results that they throw back to me. My lack of thought does not mean that the impact isn’t real though and that there are no alternatives. Ecosia is one of them, which claims to have a negative rather than a neutral or positive carbon footprint, that supports tree planting projects around the world and at the time of writing is close to hitting the 50 million trees planted mark.

Ecosia is nothing new, it has been around for almost a decade in fact. I have played around with it before, as I have with both Bing and Duck Duck Go, but I’ve never really felt ready to take any longer term leap away from the comfort of Google. Recently I’ve seen a lot more about Ecosia in the media that I follow and I am trying to be more conscious about how the small things that I do every day impact the world around me. (This is post #4 in my ‘Awareness Diary’ – check the first one to know what I am rambling about)

Using a search engine is definitely something that I do a lot more than once every day and while it may seem like a tiny insignificant thing, if the reality is that every time I search it can make a difference then why would I choose to ignore that.

There are many questions to ask and one easy place to find the answers are on Ecosia’s own FAQ page, which is very thorough. It would be easy to accuse them of bias and ‘spin’ about their own product and it’s environmental credentials, but the research that I have done in other places seems to back them up pretty conclusively.

They make big claims about privacy, corporate transparency as well as that CO2 negativity, which is a pretty impressive claim that they seem to be living up to.

Until I started writing this, I thought that there were only two questions that I was interested in the answers to: “Are my search results going to be as useful and relevant?” and “Am I making any actual change to my environmental/social footprint?”. Actually though, I have just realised that there is a third question about privacy, but let’s look at them one at time.

Is the search any good?

This is a search engine, something that I use a lot and the information that it provides me influences lots of decisions that I make, so whatever the answers to anything else might be, however much I like the feel-good factor of knowing that I am planting trees by searching, this is ultimately the most important question.

The search results and the search ads are powered by Bing, and “enhanced with Ecosia’s own algorithms”. That doesn’t mean that they are the same as the results you get for the same search term on Bing, they aren’t (it’s that enhancement I guess), but they are pretty close.

First up, this is not Google, it’s just not there. The search index is smaller to start with, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good search. The same search term gets me 15.3 million results on Google and only 4.8 million on Ecosia, but since I’m not likely to look past the second or third page anyway that probably doesn’t make such a big difference to me.

Entering simple calculations in the address bar works, so do one word language translations. Currency and measurement conversions don’t seem to, which is annoying but not a deal-breaker for me. There are a few cases where I might want the might of Google to power my research and then I can just…. open Google.

A few hours ago Ecosia became the default search on both my laptop and my phone, and nothing bad has happened to me, so I’m more than happy to leave it this way.

Am I making a difference?

Yes, I think I actually am. The tree planting projects that Ecosia supports are real and the trees are actually being planted.

Outside of that, Ecosia runs their own solar power plant and buys any extra power needed from renewable energy partners. The search results are provided by Bing which Microsoft claims is also a CO2 neutral operation.

I don’t want to eulogise too much, but I am struggling to find any real faults here. They publish monthly financial reports, they keep money in ethical banks, share clear information about what is spent how at which projects and about their partners on the ground. There such things as good companies and this truly does seem to be one of them. If you want to know more then their blog is worth taking a look at.

The privacy question

Ecosia probably take my online privacy more seriously than most of the people who use their search do.

There is a choice to be made when it comes to online privacy, you can let companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon track almost every movement that you make both online and in physical reality, or you can decide that you want to minimise that.

I can see the advantages of both sides of this. On some levels, it is nice to be offered more relevant search results, more targeted advertising for things I might actually want, to be able to look back at where I was a year ago and find that while I don’t remember the name of the place I ate where they had really amazing sweet potato fries, my phone does. On the other hand though, maybe I don’t actually need any of that and can choose what I want to see, buy and know without having it forcefed to me by an algorithm that I will never actually meet and with people and corporations with very questionable ethical policies having access to info about every facet of my life.

What you need to know here is that Ecosia encrypts your searches, that they don’t store your search terms, don’t sell any data to anyone and you have the option to turn off all tracking.

Ecosia isn’t perfect, but then again neither is Google and at the end of the day if you aren’t able to sacrifice a few extra keystrokes to make a conversion or click through to a page instead of expecting a rich snippet answer, then what exactly would you be wiling to sacrifice to make a difference to the world you live in?