Whether we’re writing an essay for school, trying to find content for a whitepaper at work, or if we simply want to know if our favourite restaurant is open, we’re heavily reliant on search engines. It won’t come as a surprise to you that Google has 92.41% of the search engine market share, processing more than 3.5 billion searches per day.
Back in 2009, Google claimed that the carbon footprint associated with a search was 0.2g of CO2. The number has certainly changed since then, in part due to potential energy efficiency improvements in data centers. However, using their assumption, it would bring the daily footprint of Google searches to 700,000 kg of CO2 per day, the equivalent to 2,831,220 KM driven by car! You might think that your individual contribution doesn’t matter, but you can be a vector for change as greener alternatives to Google do exist.
I heard about Ecosia a couple of years ago but I never dug deeper into it. I was recently reminded of the company in a How to Save a Planet episode, and the benefits seemed too good to be true. A search engine that doesn’t sell your data to advertisers, with no third-party trackers, and which uses its income to finance the planting of trees? This time, I had to do the research.
Ecosia was founded in 2009 by Christian Kroll, following a trip around the world that exposed him to the issue of climate change and the role reforestation might play in tackling it. Its business model is similar to other search engines, it generates revenue as users click on advertisements. However, the impact of a search, what their revenues finance and how your data is handled is very different from what would occur when you use Google.
Data privacy is at the heart of the offering. As a user, your search history won’t be logged to your profile and your data won’t be sold to advertisers. Additionally, to prevent anyone from accessing your information, all user searches are encrypted and third-party trackers on websites are not used.
Most importantly, the revenues from your searches will be used to finance reforestation projects worldwide. Since its inception, Ecosia has invested nearly 13 million euros to finance the planting of more than 120,000,000 trees. The company is highly transparent with its revenue metrics and what they are used for. For example, in March of 2021, 789,113 euros (40% of their monthly revenue) were invested to finance the planting of 1,783,307 trees. Ecosia estimates that it takes 45 searches on average to generate enough revenue to finance a tree. With 1107 searches, of which many were a result of my research for this article, I guess I financed the planting of 24 trees?
With sustainability at the heart of the company’s offering, it also extends to how Ecosia operates. Since 2014, Ecosia has been certified as a B-Corporation. If you’re not familiar with what that entails, I would encourage you to read my article on B-Corps. Essentially, Ecosia has been verified for meeting the highest standards of environmental and social performance. The company is also carbon negative, implying that Ecosia removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it adds as a result of its activities.
In 2018, the company built its own solar plants in Germany, enabling them to produce more energy than is required to power all Ecosia searches. Beyond ensuring they use 100% renewable energy, the excess energy supply is fed back to the German electricity grid. It’s a small piece of the puzzle towards a clean energy transition for Germany, considering that nearly 78% of its energy in 2019 was produced by fossil fuels. However, it sets the example for other companies wishing to start producing their own renewable energy.
Ecosia’s objective is also to help us make informed decisions. They highlight companies that have a positive impact on the planet with a green leaf. If you didn’t already know that Patagonia was a leader in environmental and social sustainability, Ecosia will let you know!
This might sound too good to be true for you. However, researching into the matter seems to confirm that Ecosia is a legitimate organisation financing real reforestation projects. I understand many will be sceptical and I’d always encourage people to be critical thinkers and not take what they read at face value. For any unanswered questions, you can explore Ecosia’s endless FAQ or conduct your own independent research.
I have to be honest and admit that Ecosia hasn’t been as effective as Google in helping me search for information. However, it’s only natural as the search engine does not benefit from the same network effects that Google does. Similarly to Metcalfe’s law, network effects imply that the value of a good or service will increase as the number of users increases. With search engines, a virtuous feedback loop occurs as new users join the platform. More advertisers and content creators will be attracted to the search engine, leading in turn to more users joining. As more people start using Ecosia, we can expect search quality to increase. In the meantime, a simple hack I use is to have Google bookmarked and easy to access whenever I cannot find what I’m searching for on Ecosia.
What can you do?
All you need to get started is to download the Ecosia Chrome extension and you’re good to go! I’d encourage you to try it out for a week and see what happens. In a best-case scenario, you’ll be satisfied with a new search engine that is aligned with your values. If it doesn’t work out for you, you can always switch back to Google. At least after 45 “Why isn’t Ecosia as good as Google?” searches, you will have contributed to the planting of one tree.