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Programming, Research & Planning, Database Management, Systems Integration

15 Years Striving for Search Engine Independence

How can I get my website to rank high on Google? That was the challenge that confronted Marc Smith, like many other developers back in 2001. It’s a question tackled by hundreds of millions in digital marketing nowadays. It has spawned new branches of marketing such as SEO and content marketing. In Marc’s case he was developing a shareware game for his friend as a favour, and as a way to hone his programming skills. Little did he know the lifelong quest it would draw him into. Figuring out how to rank highly on Google led Marc down a fateful path and the creation of his own search engine. That search engine, Mojeek, is one of very few genuine alternatives to Google.

Marc’s journey will be familiar to startup founders and yet is unusual. He has dared to be different and avoided building things fast. Using the web services of the digital ecosystem establishment would have meant accepting undesirable dependencies and practices.

By sticking to his principles Marc, the founder and lead developer of Mojeek, has created the only general search engine crawling the web that does not track its users. The big two from the USA, Google and Bing (joined by Yandex of Russia plus Baidu and Sogou from China) track their users and hoover up all the data they can. Mojeek stands alone in not doing that and has maintained its independence since inception.

How is it that Marc recognised surveillance capitalism way before that became a thing? And what has driven him in taking a contrarian view of how search should be done? This is no David versus Goliath story. No, it’s the story of a long struggle to offer an alternative for consumer web search. Search which provides liberty from state and corporate surveillance.

Privacy as a Right

To answer these questions we need to go back to March 18, 2006, when Marc took a prescient and public position on privacy. On that day he fully recognised the value and significance of what he had been building with Mojeek; a search engine without personal tracking. This position, of no tracking, holds to this day and underpins the company he founded. And it drives him to keep developing Mojeek with an intensity and determination few of us can imagine, never mind sustain over two decades.

So what happened and on that day and what led up to it?

“The searcher probably felt safe because they entered a search query about a sensitive medical matter. Of course, I had no idea who this was, nor was I interested.”

Marc explained, “I was watching the search queries come in on Mojeek and where they came from. Back then, the search rate was a trickle. I noticed a referral coming from Google. A search immediately followed so was presumably the same person. The searcher probably felt safe, because they entered a search query about a sensitive medical matter. Of course, I had no idea who this was, nor was I interested. Mojeek had never included any tracking of anything personal. But this instance got me thinking more about what it meant for people in general, and particularly vulnerable people, to live in fear of being watched over. Being tracked as they sought information and places to go online. By this time I knew pretty well how Google collected data and how its search engine worked. So I watched the queries, for a few more hours that day, and saw more referrals from Google immediately followed by what looked like very personal queries. I wanted people to know, rather than guess, that they were safe using Mojeek so I put up a page clarifying the position on personal tracking. It was a natural commitment to make, the right thing to do and respectful of a basic human right.” The privacy statement which was Mojeek's first privacy policy can be seen here on the web archive. Its principles hold today and are expressed in what is, tellingly, one of the shortest privacy policies you will see, and readable in 2 minutes.

At the end of 2019, Edward committed to investing a total of £2.3m into Mojeek. The conditions of investment were a commitment to a serious go-to-market effort; with investment tranches linked to milestones. One of these was the hiring of a CEO, Colin Hayhurst in July 2020. Marc had long realised Mojeek needed somebody with a different set of skills than himself, to take it forward, so was very happy about this.

With Marc, Colin has expanded the team to seven staff, all working remotely. Mojeek had always been remote and intends to remain so. Their marketing efforts have been ramped up with a full-time Head of Marketing, Josh Long from October 2020. Significantly the number of servers was doubled in early 2020 from 100 to 200 and today Mojeek has it’s own dedicated room in the Custodian data centre and is currently expanding servers from 200 to 300.

The focus now is on building a sustainable business, but without compromising Mojeek’s principles on tracking. Colin holds similar values to Marc about surveillance and privacy. He is an experienced software entrepreneur, who has commercialised technology globally from the UK and California.

“Ads are not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is tracking.”

The team led by Marc and Colin is exploring different revenue stream opportunities. It has, most notably, developed its own search ad technology stack. And so, as of this month customers are using it to place search ads on Mojeek, in what is currently a closed programme.

At at time when society is questioning the usage of personalised advertising, there is finally an emerging alternative and now an option for search ads without tracking. As Mojeek put it when describing their new search advertising: Ads are not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is tracking.”

Marc’s long journey to provide search without surveillance has reached a pivotal stage, just when search with surveillance has started to spread widely in the public consciousness.