Learning Search

Startpage.com Has a New Look and a Lot of Functionality

When it comes to search engines, Google seems to get most of the headlines with an occasional nod to Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yandex, or Baidu. And while it’s true that there are far, far fewer search engines than there used to be, there are still more than are getting news coverage.

Do you remember Ixquick? A metasearch engine that was launched in 1998, it changed its name to StartPage in 2009. Ixquick had a focus on privacy as far back as 2006 and has made that feature its primary focus now, in response to many tech companies which… well… haven’t.

Startpage.com (new branding now, no camel case, but I hope they don’t mind me using Startpage instead of Startpage.com for the rest of the article) did a soft launch in mid-November of its new offerings after many weeks of gathering feedback on the new design. While there are some cosmetic changes (themes, some of the advanced searches getting more “front-and-center”) the old “StartPage Proxy” feature is now Anonymous View, and I think you’ll like it.

What’s Startpage?

Startpage started its life as a metasearch engine but at this moment just uses Google. Its front page notes “You can’t beat Google when it comes to online search. So we’re paying them to use their brilliant search results in order to remove all trackers and logs.”

Startpage might be using Google’s search results but they look different. Way different. You’ve probably noticed that when you search Google you get results relevant to your locality. With Startpage you don’t get that. You also don’t get in-result pointers to Google Maps, YouTube, etc.

 

screenshot from 2018 11 26 13 57 33

Google’s top five results for solar heated swimming pool included results from the state where I live as well as pointers to YouTube videos and an Amazon listing. Now check out Startpage.

screenshot from 2018 11 26 13 57 38

The Startpage.com results aren’t oriented toward a location, with both DIY and business listings in the search results (as well as a Pinterest result I’m rather surprised by.)

Search Suggestions

In addition to the search results being different there’s also the search autocomplete suggestions, which are a lot different. For a start they’re not based on actual user queries (because why would a search engine focused on privacy do that?)

When you use Google, you get suggested ways to complete your search. For example, if you started typing “why do cats eat” Google might suggest searching for “why do cats eat grass,” or “why do cats eat plastic,” and so on.

screenshot from 2018 11 27 06 28 01

These suggestions come from what users are searching for, according to Search Engine Land. They also occasionally get Google in trouble.

Startpage uses general information, not user search queries, to build its search suggestions. (This is addressed on its support pages.) When I tested it I couldn’t even get any suggestions for “why do cats eat” and only one suggestion for “why do cats” (“why do cats purr”). Be prepared, when you use Startpage, to get limited suggestions or in the case of really esoteric searches, no suggestions at all.

Before you dive into Startpage, though, check the settings — particularly if you’re trying to filter content.

Get Your Startpage Settings Right

Startpage’s settings are at https://www.startpage.com/search/settings . There are a bunch of standard settings about how many results you get per page and your default search language, but I wanted to focus particularly on the privacy options. There are two sections for that: one is “Privacy and Safety” and the other is “Save your settings without a cookie.”

screenshot from 2018 11 27 07 18 38

The first thing I should tell you is that the settings in the screenshot are the default settings. In other words, All these security/privacy measures are turned on by default. There are family filters for videos, using POST vs GET (Treehouse has a good breakdown on POST vs GET) which servers you should connect to, and filtering images and the Web. There’s also an option to check the pages you are visiting by proxy (more about that later) to see if the unproxied pages contain malware. (It surprises me, but does not quite discourage me, that Startpage uses Yandex to check an unproxied page for malware.)

Now, how does Startpage save its search settings? Via cookie, of course. But the settings page also offers the option of plain and obfuscated URLs for saving the settings if you don’t want a cookie. (I wasn’t sure how much information could be gleaned from these URLs, so just in case I indulged in a bit of obscurity by green pepper.)

screenshot from 2018 11 27 07 18 47

Startpage Advanced Searching

Yes, Startpage uses search results from Google. No, you cannot just plug in Google search syntax and expect it to work. I tested this with the query intitle:fred inurl:ethel. It works fine in Google:

screenshot from 2018 11 27 07 51 18

But what happens when you try to repeat that query on Startpage?

screenshot from 2018 11 27 07 50 50

I copied and pasted my query from Google to Startpage and it autocorrected my inurl: to url: and got me no results. Wanting to be sure, I used Startpage’s advanced search to run the search again.

screenshot from 2018 11 27 07 51 00

I love building up complex queries in Google, but a couple of test runs here told me I need to stick to Startpage’s advanced search, available at https://www.startpage.com/en/advanced-search.html .

screenshot from 2018 11 27 08 17 13

Here you can search for keywords inside titles and URLs, include and exclude words, and search for links to specific domains. I especially like that you can integrate AND and OR queries so easily. Once you run the query, you can edit it from the search result page. Startpage doesn’t let you search for results on .jp domain names, but you can edit your search query on the results page and the search works fine.

screenshot from 2018 11 27 08 33 05

You might have noticed that these search results don’t look too different from Google’s, except that link next to each result that reads Anonymous View. This is a very handy Startpage feature.

Anonymous View

Have you ever gotten a search result that looked useful, but its useful/sketchy ratio was such that you weren’t sure about visiting it?

That’s just the kind of thing Anonymous View is for. Anonymous View visits the page via a proxy – your visit of the page will be completely anonymous. Startpage — kind of supersedes the JavaScript in the original page to make it safer without breaking it. (You can read a rundown of Startpage’s Anonymous View feature at https://www.startpage.com/en/search/proxy-help.html .) Most of the time when I used the Anonymous View feature it worked fine; it does load a little slower as it’s being processed. I did have a couple of breaks, though. When I found the marvelously named “Milton Keynes Roller Derby” site, its front page appeared just long enough to take a screenshot:

screenshot from 2018 11 27 08 55 27

But then disappeared into a vast gray screen:

screenshot from 2018 11 27 08 57 55

In this case I would take the URL ( https://www.miltonkeynesrollerderby.com/ ) and do a cache:https://www.miltonkeynesrollerderby.com/ search at Google. Generally, though, I found Startpage’s Anonymous View function to be easier to use and more functional.

In the time it took me to write this article I got impressed enough with Startpage that I’ve set it as my default search engine in my browser. (Julia Izabela wrote up a quick tutorial for doing this if you want to try it too.)  I suspect I’ll have to go to Google when I’m doing a very complicated search, but for quick searches and extra privacy, Startpage.com looks like it’ll do just fine.

2 replies »

  1. If you prefer an anonymous meta-search engine rather than using Google results,
    try https://www.searx.me/

    Wikipedia description – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Searx
    Quote:
    Searx is a free metasearch engine, available under the GNU Affero General Public License version 3, with the aim of protecting the privacy of its users. To this end, Searx does not share users’ IP addresses or search history with the search engines from which it gathers results. Tracking cookies served by the search engines are blocked, preventing user-profiling-based results modification. By default, Searx queries are submitted via HTTP POST, to prevent users’ query keywords from appearing in webserver logs. Searx was inspired by the Seeks project, though it does not implement Seeks’ peer-to-peer user-sourced results ranking.

    Each search result is given as a direct link to the respective site, rather than a tracked redirect link as used by Google. In addition, when available, these direct links are accompanied by “cached” and/or “proxied” links that allow viewing results pages without actually visiting the sites in question. The “cached” links point to saved versions of a page on archive.org, while the “proxied” links allow viewing the current live page via a Searx-based web proxy. In addition to the general search, the engine also features tabs to search within specific domains: files, images, IT, maps, music, news, science, social media, and videos.
    ———-

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