European answer to Google that does not sell your data

Europe has a fast-growing and conscientious alternative to the US giant Google – Qwant, a multilingual search engine that does not sell on user data.

Set up in 2013 by eric Léandri, Jean-Manuel Rozan and Patrick Constant, Qwant is available in 16 languages, including French, English, German, Spanish and Italian.

It recently attracted €25million in funding from the European Investment Bank (EIB), and plans to use the money to expand its workforce from its current 60 to 200 by 2017. Most new staff will be based in the company’s research and development wing, Pôle R&D, in Nice.

With more than 6million hits a day, Qwant aims to be a pan-European alternative to Google, which dominates the market – 93% of internet users worldwide search the web with its search engines.

“An alternative in Europe, five, eight, 10%... it’s not bad,” said Mr Léandri when asked about his ambitions for Qwant, which he is confident does not need to mirror Google’s market share – or its data-selling policies – to be profitable.

He has a point. In an industry that saw Google valued at €150bn on the Bourse in 2009 – a year before it started selling user data – percentages do not have to be high to mean big returns. As Mr Léandri said: “Ten percent of Europe is a lot of money.”

Qwant differs from Google in several ways. Perhaps the most important is that it does not sell on data. If you have used the internet and been surprised to find an advert apparently pitched to your needs, you have probably been subjected to ‘data mining’.

This is the process whereby your surfing history is ‘mined’ or analysed to establish your purchase patterns or simply to fathom your interests in order to sell you something.

Consumers are increasingly aware of this and have voiced anger at companies for engaging in the practice.

“Five years ago no one had a problem with Google, every body was happy using it,” said Mr Léandri. “But now people are upset because it has been sharing their data.”

Mr Léandri said Google earns an estimated €4bn a year in Europe alone for tracking data – and another €16bn from its dedicated advertising service, AdWords.

Qwant’s guarantee not to share user data with third parties is just one of the search engine’s selling points.

It also has a different approach to Google and other rivals, such as Yahoo, when it comes to displaying information.

Search returns are displayed on a single page in three columns — a general category for internet websites, another for news sources, and a social media category for sources such as Twitter and Facebook.

All categories are clearly distinguished. For instance, if you look up “football” you will see three columns of information on the subject.

The last of these categories gives Qwant another edge over its chief rival. Google has separate streams for news and generic web sources, but currently offers no standalone category for social media.

Another key selling point is Qwant Junior, which aims to provide a better-controlled internet service to parents who are concerned about what their children view online. Although Google currently offers an internet-filtering service, Mr Léandri said that it only applies to sexually explicit content and not violence. 

He explained: “You can see all the [Syrian] decapitations, people massacred. 

“Sex is the end of the world, but a head being cut off in plain sight ... it’s ridiculous.”

Qwant Junior sub-divides search returns into a content deemed suitable for minors and content that includes graphic scenes of violence and sexually explicit material.

Qwant Junior’s filtering system allows for more flexible use. Mr Léandri said: “If you are doing your biology homework, for example, and you type in ‘male sex’ or ‘female sex’ it will return all the relevant search results without giving you the adult content.”

Qwant makes its money through online advertising, on a pay-per-click basis.

“Our click-through rate is growing by 4% — that’s already a lot more than typical rates for journalism [websites],” Mr Léandri said. “It’s less than if I targeted you everywhere on the internet, sent you emails, phoned you — but it’s a lot of money just the same.”

Figures would seem to bear out Mr Léandri’s confidence. Qwant has a 20% market share in France and up to 5% in Germany. He said: “This is growing by 5-10% per week — it’s looking pretty good.”

He is also confident that when the data comes in for total hits last year the figure will be between 20% and 40% higher than the 1.6billion Qwant received in 2014.

Some of the money from the EIB will be spent advertising the site, “which we have never done”, said Mr Léandri.

With many other companies also looking at investing — he declines to give names but says they are varied and numerous — Qwant looks set to increase its presence in the cyber-world.

It is a presence that even its chief rival has had to acknowledge – type “Qwant” into Google and the first return you will see is: “Qwant is a search engine that respects your privacy and eases discovering and sharing via a social approach.”

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