Data privacy
The search engine with a difference
France’s Qwant was built to have two competitive advantages: respecting privacy and being a credible alternative to its American rivals.

The take-away

  • Unlike Google, the French product focuses only on current affairs and social-media trends, not users’ data.
  • Having increased the number of searches from 2.6 billion in 2016 to 10 billion in 2017, Qwant now accounts for 4% of all online searches in Europe.

When it says that it wants to be the “Switzerland of the internet” or the “anti-Google”, Qwant is unambiguously positioning itself in opposition to the major American search engines. The French product’s modest size forces it to offer something different, in this case respect for internet users’ privacy. “What you do remains your private business and we don’t want to know about it”, says managing director Eric Léandri.

When internet users search on Qwant, the engine does not record their personal data or search history, nor does it install cookies on their browser. This strategy requires a different business model. Qwant is funded mainly by clicks on e-commerce sites and advertising banners that aim wide, unlike Google which favours targeted advertising.

No “filter bubbles”

Another key difference is the search methodology. While Google relies on search histories and data about users, Qwant focuses on current affairs, social media and the internet as a whole. When an important event like the Cannes Film Festival receives a lot of coverage in the media or on Twitter, that event will rise to the top of the list. “Finding what is most interesting is more important than being targeted”, explains Léandri. “So we work without any ‘filter bubbles’. In other words, the indexing system is more open than that of our rivals”.

Qwant’s method was criticised when the company started in 2013 because the results sometimes lacked precision. Internet users often had to refine their search by adding keywords. Since then, the company has solved this problem by improving its algorithms and infrastructure. Qwant has gone from 50 to 160 employees in the last six months, including a team specialised in guaranteeing anonymity.

Ten billion searches

Qwant’s approach offers an undeniable advantage, according to Lars Kai Hansen, professor and researcher in the department of applied mathematics at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). “Google has an advantage in terms of the personalisation and pertinence of searches,” he notes. “But there are other parameters to take onboard such as trust, confidentiality, and responsibility”. Hansen notes that Qwant may be especially appealing to users in finance and medicine,  where absolute protection of information is essential.

With its 10 billion searches in 2017, almost four times as many as the previous year, Qwant remains far behind Google’s 3.3 billion per day. But the recent controversies linked to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica allowed Qwant’s growth rate to rise from 20% a month to 20% a day in March 2018. The search engine currently represents 4% of the European market, vs. 93% for Google. More than 80% of the traffic comes from French users, the rest mainly from Germany and Italy. Within two or three years, Léandri hopes to reach a European market share of 5% to 10%.

The mobile battle

In 2017, the company raised €18.5 million – €15 million from the Caisse des Dépôts and €3.5 million from Axel Springer, already a 20% shareholder. The founders retain the majority of the capital. This fundraising builds on the €25 million already loaned in 2015 by the European Investment Bank, €5 million from Axel Springer in 2014, and €5 million at the launch in 2013.

A change in French law should give Qwant more room for manoeuvre in the market for mobile supports. Google had managed to be the default search engine on many brands of tablets and smartphones, including Samsung and Apple. But an amendment voted by the French National Assembly now limits the exclusivity clauses concluded between manufacturers and the American giants, making it easier for other players to propose their applications on mobile supports. “This will allow us to act directly upstream and will open up new perspectives”, says Léandri.

An “ethical” business model

 

The French search engine is funded thanks to non-targeted advertising on its pages and clicks on e-commerce sites. This classic affiliation model is simple: the company has struck up partnerships with companies like TripAdvisor and Fnac. When an internet user wants to buy an iPad and visits a page on a partner site, Qwant receives a commission. The company also offers a billed formula to render data to clients who need it. Brands or celebrities with a large community of fans can ask Qwant to recover what internet users say publicly and voluntarily on social media to build closer ties with their customers or followers. In contrast, the Google business model is based on selling data to clients and targeted advertisers.

Why choose Qwant?

 

Despite its small size, the French search engine offers several advantages:

  • It guarantees the anonymity of users’ data.
  • The company does not install cookies on browsers or retain search histories.
  • The results of searches come from the entire web and are not indexed to users’ previous searches.
  • The Qwant Junior platform, created in partnership with the French educational system, blocks violent content from reaching young users. The start-up has also announced the release this summer of QwantMaps, a tool similar to Google Maps but without its tracking system.

The company wants to build a European ecosystem of applications that are respectful of users, faithful to algorithms and open to new networks.

Sources

Eric Léandri (Qwant), Lars Kai Hansen (DTU), entreprendre.fr, clubic.com, nextinpact.com