What Is The Opposite Of Social Media?

StartPage-Proxy-LogoIs anonymous search and surfing the opposite of social media?

Our social media experiences require us to participate as a known members of online communities. Facebook, MySpace et al collect personal data while you communicate with friends, share photos and personalize your profile. Sure, most people are happy with the tradeoff of exchanging their privacy for the joy of social media.

StartPage.com’s Proxy service new allows you to free yourself from the constant monitoring of the social graph.

Want to search and surf anonymously and securely. Use StartPage.com and its new Proxy service.

Web analytics is second nature to many readers of this blog, however, most of the world is blissfully unaware that their movements are being tracked online.

StartPage.com promises “We don’t record your IP address” – the most unique search engine positioning I’ve seen in a while! StartPage.com is now taking private search to the next level, letting you surf the web anonymously using proxy servers. The service just launched on Data Privacy Day 2010.

StartPage.com could capture market share in a landsape dominated by Google, Bing, Yahoo! and Ask, giants whose business models depend on the data they collect about searching habits.

If StartPage.com makes a splash in traditional search, it would be a rare feat in an industry that hasn’t seen a breakthrough business model in a while….

Is Private Search a Breakthrough Business Model?

“Private search” is original to most people. StartPage.com provides them with a solution at the same time they deliver a message about the problem.

Providing people with easy to use, fully anonymous search and surfing should resonate with much of the world’s population. Instead of being shot as the messenger of the privacy crisis, StartPage.com may be embraced as the savior to the problem.

Dr. Katherine Albrecht, a legendary crusader for people’s privacy in the face of evolving technology, represents StartPage.com in the US. Katherine is a celebrity in consumer advocacy circles, and when she joined StartPage.com Wired.com published a letter promoting StartPage.com that caused a stir in the blogosphere.

How StartPage.com Protects You

Still don’t get it?

StartPage.com is the anti-Google!

Here’s how StartPage.com works:

Not Tracking You

StartPage.com ensures your privacy by not keeping information on you or your searches in a database. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt is famous for telling people to “get over it” (sic). Schmidt says Google tracks what you do, and if you don’t like it – don’t use Google’s services.

StartPage.com’s philosophy is the opposite of Schmidt’s sentiments, and they accomplish this by simply forgetting your IP address ever made a request from the site, every time you search.

Hiding Search Terms

StartPage.com protects you from third parties with Transport Layer Security (TLS). StartPage.com uses HTTPS to disguise your search term requests, the same way Facebook uses HTTPS to securely conceal your password as it travels across the web.

Look at the URL bar when you use StartPage.com.

StartPage-URL-Bar-HTTPS

Notice how it starts out “HTTPS://”. The “S” in HTTPS stands for “Secure”.

Using HTTPS keeps your cable company or any other kind of hacker/ Internet eavesdropper from seeing what you are searching for on StartPage.com.

Your Google Search Terms Are Tracked By Third Parties!

Yes, I’m saying that its not just Google that knows what you search, but every step on the Internet in between you and Google can see what you search.

Say What? Look at the URL bar when I search Google:

Google-Search-URL-Redirect-Electronic-Frontier-Foundation

My cable company can see that I searched for ‘Electronic Frontier Foundation’. Look closely, ‘Electronic+Frontier+Foundation’ is embedded in the search request URL that is sent across the web unencrypted (not using TLS, like StartPage.com).

ISPs Quietly Profit from Tracking You

Cable and phone companies do collect your web surfing data. They do look at the URLs you request, and parse them to glean insights. Competitive Intelligence firms like Compete.com buy this data from cable ISPs, and then resell it to marketers.

Talk about solving a problem you didn’t know you had!

Web Proxy Servers

StartPage.com’s proxy service takes privacy to a whole new level. StartPage.com acts as your discrete representative on the web, keeping you anonymous. StartPage.com will makes requests for web pages (say Yahoo.com) for you, and then passes the Yahoo! content to you through StartPage.com proxy servers. That way, Yahoo! just know the page request came from StartPage.com, not you.

Proxies Are an Established Part of the Web

As you read this, the SocialTimes.com web page you just requested is being stored in web proxy servers by your Internet ISP, by your corporate employer, etc. Nothing inherently sinister there – its just more efficient to serve up the next request for the same web page by your co-worker, neighbor etc. from a proxy server that is closer them than our web servers.

How are These Proxies Different from Google?

Your Google searches are conducted against cached pages that are hosted by Google. At least initially, your search experience is dictated by previously indexed content Google is hosting on what are effectively proxy servers. That’s why SEO oriented web site changes can take time to filter through to affect a site’s Google index rankings.

When you click on a Google search result, Google first sends you to a special tracking URL on their servers. Google then sends you off their servers to the web address you clicked on, and those sites track you as they deliver their content to you. StartPage.com proxies serve the web sites you click on through StartPage.com’s own servers – depriving sites of the ability to track you.

Can StartPage.com succeed?

StartPage.com faces serious challenges but could succeeed in a big way.

Here’s a brief analysis of StartPage.com’s business:

StartPage.com Business Model:

StartPage.com is a Pay-Per-Click Syndication play. StartPage.com actually uses Google Sponsored results listings (read AdSense) for monetization.

StartPage-SERP

StartPage.com’s AdSense-based business model is a double edged sword

If StartPage.com users click on a sponsored search result, generating revenue for the company, Google learns what that specific user searched!

Look at what raced across my laptop when I clicked an ad on StartPage.com: Google tracking URL HTTP request headers. Notice the Google.com and GoogleAdServices.com site addresses.

Google-URL-Redirect-HTTP-Headers-StartPage-AdSense

The presence of these Google.com and GoogleAdServices.com URL addresses shows Google communicating directly with my laptop.

Google collects personally identifiable information using these URL links. Google can then connect the dots between my Google usage and my StartPage.com searches, because it collects the same personally identifiable information during both my StartPage.com and Google.com visits.

AdSense is a contextual ad network. That means Google AdSense serves ads against and bills clients based on ‘context’ – the keywords on partner sites. In the case of StartPage.com, the only thing ‘contextual’ that Google AdSense has to work with is a user’s search terms.

The Point: StartPage.com users unknowingly send their info and search terms to Google.com when they click on a PPC ad. Users go to StartPage.com to avoid Google et al. So this is a hidden surprise for users, like clicking on a link to a virus, or opening an email attachment with malware.

AdSense distribution is likely not StartPages.com’s long term business model!

StartPage.com Revenue Potential:

Can a company make significant money doing a pseudo-paradoxical PPC rev share play with Google? Domain monetization firms like Oversee.net sure make hundreds of millions a year doing it!

StartPage.com Cost Structure:

Start page will have to cache all of the content people request through its proxy servers. This is an expensive proposition, especially since they would have to operate all these servers themselves to ensure privacy. As far as I can tell, “leveraging the cloud” is out of the question.

StartPage.com Profit Goals:

Can start page be profitable? With a PPC revenue stream, and a cost model that involves serving tons of web content, its safe to say they won’t be insanely profitable. But profit isn’t the primary motive behind private search (your rights are). And they could always go “freemium”, with some users paying to surf anonymously without ads – now that could be profitable.

StartPage.com Search UX:

HTTPS is slower that regular HTTP based web surfing, so search requests can take a second longer. Trust me, its weird when your search results pages take 1.3 seconds to load… not the “(0.14 seconds)” Google brags about on every SERP. It is a worthwhile trade-off to trade a little speed for privacy, but this difference from the established UX of search could slow consumer adoption.

StartPage.com Proxy Security

StartPage.com does not enable JavaScript on the pages it passes to you through its proxy. This is a smart security move, generally, and it is necessary to protect your anonymity.

JavaScript is a primary attack vector for web hackers. JavaScript communicates behind the scenes with web servers you can’t see on the page (the magic of Ajax), and JavaScript can be used by hackers to secretly download software to your computer via compromised web sites.

StartPage.com proxy services makes your surfing safer, but turning off JavaScript eliminates most Web 2.0 sites from use through the proxy. For instance, I’m still waiting for a LinkedIn page to load 20 minutes after requesting it!

StartPage.com Vision:

StartPage.com and its proxy service hope to enable private, secure web browsing for all Internet users. Its a revolutionary goal, and should be the start of a trend.

So StartPage.com has what every web venture needs most to succeed: A world changing vision.