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Google gets a new rival as Brave Search opens to the public

About 32 million people now use Brave's ad-blocking browser each month.

Brave browser icon
Illustration by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Brave, the maker of a popular ad blocking browser, opened on Tuesday a public beta of its privacy-focused search engine, a first step in creating a product that could compete with market titan Google. Brave Search will become the default search engine in the Brave browser later this year.

Unlike other new search engines, which generally repackage results from Google and Microsoft's Bing, Brave is building an independent index of the web. Brave Search will rely on Bing in some areas, like images, where its own results aren't yet good enough. And for ordinary searches, Brave can blend in Google results for people who enable the feature when prompted.

Initially, Brave Search won't show ads -- the chief way that Google monetizes its search results. Later, it'll offer free, ad-supported search and a paid option with no ads.

Taking on Google is an enormous undertaking. More than 92% all searches go through Google, according to analytics firm StatCounter. Bing is a distant second with less than 3%. But an opportunity may have opened as Google comes under intensifying pressure to protect consumer privacy and as governments around the world ramp up antitrust scrutiny. Public opinion, legal action and legislation could help smaller challengers take on Big Tech.

Getting lots of people using Brave Search is crucial to its success, said Chief Executive Brendan Eich, who led Mozilla and Firefox before co-founding Brave. "Users are vital to improving our search," with their collective actions anonymously steering Brave servers toward the high quality websites Brave Search should be scanning and including in its results, he said.

Brave isn't the only company aiming at Google's core business. DuckDuckGo, which offers a privacy-focused search engine and mobile browser, said this month that its annual revenue now surpasses $100 million and that it plans to launch a desktop browser.

DuckDuckGo, as well as Yahoo, Ecosia, StartPage, Qwant and other smaller search engines, repackage search results from Microsoft Bing and Google through partnerships with the bigger search companies.

Google didn't immediately comment for this story. But it has described its efforts to provide accurate search results and cut down on misinformation, particularly for COVID-19 information, in recent blog posts.

Brave built its search engine out of Tailcat, which it acquired earlier this year from Germany's Hubert Burda Media. Tailcat was designed to deliver search results without logging user activity or creating profiles.

Brave launched its first browser five years ago. It's now available on Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS and Linux.

The company has grown its user base to 32 million people each month. Eich expects to reach 50 million by the end of the year.

Piggybacking off Google search results

It requires immense resources to scour the entire web for information, build an index of that information, then evaluate the best results for a given search query. Brave doesn't build its search index alone, though.

Instead, the startup crowdsources the work with help from Brave users who, if they opt into data sharing, can supply Brave with data about what they search for and what search results they click on, Eich said. That "clickstream" data is anonymized so it can't be tracked to individual users, he said.

Checking clickstream data is similar to an approach Microsoft used in Bing -- one that led to Google charging that Bing copied Google search results. In 2011, Google manually wired its search results to show particular pages for nonsense searches like "hiybbprqag." Google employees searched for those terms into computers using Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser running the Bing toolbar extension. Bing, in some cases, then started recommending the same pages that were Google's search results.

Eich, like Microsoft, argues that there's nothing wrong with using users' clickstream data in this way. And he says it applies a lot of machine learning technology that goes well beyond just copying what comes out of Google's search engine.

"Rather than copying, we prefer to say learning, as we believe it's more precise. Machine learning systems do not merely copy, they aggregate and optimize," Eich said. "Brave Search is a user-first machine learning system."

As for Bing, Eich said Microsoft "got that hlybbprqag result in their index either by Googlers clicking on the fake result link or else by Bing scraping unclicked results blindly." The first is "akin to search click fraud," he said, where people try to manipulate search results by clicking results they want to see rank highly. The second possibility would indicate that click data wasn't vetted well. "We will not scrape blindly," Eich said. Microsoft declined to comment.

Blocking ads and tracking

By default, Brave strips out ads on the web and blocks website code that can track your behavior on the internet. Tracker blocking is a feature of rival browsers like Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Edge. Chrome, which is built by Google, is also working on privacy controls.

Users can opt into Brave's own ad system, a privacy-focused option that returns a portion of revenue to its users through Brave's cryptocurrency, called the Basic Attention Token. Those who publish websites and YouTube or Twitch videos also can sign up to receive payments from Brave users.