PARIS — For more than three years now, the French startup Qwant has been trying to prove that a search engine can be efficient and profitable while respecting the privacy and anonymity of users. After a slow and difficult start, Qwant is finally taking off. Six months ago the search engine had 8 million visitors. That number shot up to 21 million this May.
Eric Leandri, the co-founder and director of Qwant, is confident: "We now count on an increase of 15% to 20% every month." Half the startup's users are in France while 30% of them live in Germany. The company, which has offices and servers in Paris and a development team in the French city of Nice, employs 60 people. The startup's presence in Germany is assured by media group Springer, which holds 20% of the company's shares and is an important technical partner. Although Qwant may be a small player compared to search giant Google, which has a firm grip on the European market, Leandri says that Qwant's usage figures are encouraging. He attributes interest in his startup to Europeans who don't want to be subjected to mass surveillance by U.S. internet giants and who seek alternatives.
At first glance, Qwant is a standard search engine that puts results into categories: web, news, social networks, images, shopping, music… But behind the scenes, it's different from Google and other commercial search engines. Qwant does not stalk users through cookies (the small files that store information); it does not collect any personal browsing or localization data; it does not profile users. "We do not even save website addresses," says Leandri. "For every new browsing session, the visitor's IP number is encrypted and converted into a character sequence into which numbers are randomly added. This prevents the original number being retraced."
Indeed, the suggested results are not based on the user's profile: "If two French people typed the same request, they would get exactly the same results since we do not know who they are. Users are not limited by their assumed preferences, we allow them to make greater and unexpected discoveries," says Leandri.
No personalized algorithm
Qwant created an artificial intelligence system called Iceberg to select and prioritize content. Iceberg's algorithms take into account a range of criteria such as the technical and editorial quality of the text or image, links to the page, comments and mentions on social networks, the user's online behavior. "Of course, Qwant is subjective because we decide on the importance assigned to each criterion. But at the same time, our results are neutral because, in the end, no humans correct them," says Leandri.
To make money, Qwant uses the traditional pay-per-click method "just like Google did until 2009 before it started intensive tracking," says Leandri. Qwant has an agreement with the affiliate platform Zanox that puts it in contact with several commercial websites. "Every time a visitor clicks on a link to a sales site we earn between 44 and 88 cents," he said. Qwant also signed partnerships with TripAdvisor, eBay and LeGuide. "If a website visitor rents a hotel room on TripAdvisor via Qwant, we get a little bonus."
Qwant co-founders JM Rozan (left) and Eric Leandri (right) — Photo: Facebook page
In early 2016, Qwant crossed the symbolic threshold of 1% market share in France and should be able to do the same in Germany as well. "Now, publicists know we exist, we can get involved in their campaigns," says Leandri.
Qwant has its own servers in the suburbs of Paris. "For a startup, it is a huge investment of several million euros but it is nonetheless essential. If we want to guarantee the safety and anonymity of our users, we have to do everything ourselves internally. There's no way we'll use the American cloud (data centers subject to U.S. laws that authorize the surveillance of foreign data)."
Leandri underscores that his startup values privacy. "With our technology, we could make a lot of money through leading edge marketing but we are not trying to do that. We want to show that we can make a living while doing work that is ethical and acceptable while being respectful of the rights and lifestyle of Europeans. As opposed to those who want to keep watch on everyone all the time, we endeavor to create a social project based on individual freedom."
To ensure transparency, Qwant released their company's software source code that interacts with user's machines: "People who can read the code can check that everything really works with no data collection." About the specific algorithm it uses for search results, Leandri is more cautious because he says knowing such information would allow a site to plug itself to rise above others in search results. But Qwant is working on a technical solution. In 2017, the startup hopes to publish algorithms in open source that can't be distorted.
In the immediate future, Qwant will focus on working on mobile, which only represents 12% of its traffic. Leandri says he's struggling to have tech giants Apple and Google rank Qwant higher on the list of default search engines in Safari and Chrome browsers on smartphones and tablets. He believes that this is the only way people would notice Qwant: "We could create our own apps for the App Store and Google Play but it would be useless. To check a site through Qwant, the user will have to open a browser. Google would instantly take over with the next request as it is the default search engine in most browsers."
Qwant is trying to negotiate an agreement with the Mozilla foundation to become the default search engine on Firefox. Leandri is also battling Google on the legal front at the European level. "I am vice president of the Open Internet Project association, which comprises almost 12,000 European companies who feel damaged by Google's business practices."
He worked with the European Commission in launching legal action against Google to force the search engine to stop what he describes as abuse of its dominant position. Qwant, which is also lobbying the French government, has received a positive response from many officials who want to see a European alternative to Google, Leandri says.
On the initiative of the French Secretary of State for digital development, Axelle Lemaire, several ministries have been testing Qwant's efficiency the past few months. If the feedback is positive, officials will have to make it their default search engine.
Qwant is gaining popularity in the U.S., at least among internet professionals: "Recently Google's senior officials noted that, on the internet, competition is only a click away. And they mentioned Qwant."