Saturday 22 April marks Earth Day, and this year’s campaign will focus on educating people about the environment and climate change. With this important day at the front of my mind, I’d like to introduce you to a lesser-known search engine that has environmental issues at its core

Perhaps it will make you question if you ought to be searching using something other than Google…

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Why talk about Ecosia?

Environmental awareness and sustainability have rightfully become buzzwords in recent years. So much so that some companies have departments dedicated to creating policies to champion social and environmental causes, and other departments to make sure their marketing collateral shouts about their green credentials, not least because they know it sells.

Nielson carried out an online study and asked 30,000 digital consumers what they thought about the products they buy, and what they’re prepared to pay for a sustainable product. Sixty-six percent of people asked said they were prepared to pay more for a product sold by a company who is environmentally aware and committed to sustainability. With this in mind, Ecosia appears the obvious choice of search engine within this sphere of environmentally conscious consumers.

There are other lesser-known search engines, each with slightly different USPs and almost certainly providing results with varying levels of success. We will cover some of the benefits and compromises found when using alternative search engines, in the future blogs within this series, but for now, back to Ecosia and its environmental ambitions.

Whilst news and adverts for Ecosia only started popping up in my social media feeds fairly recently, the small search engine actually started up in December 2009. In April 2014, it became one of the only search engines to be awarded a B Corporation status; B Corp status is a bit like a bag of coffee having the FairTrade stamp, proving the product and company has strong social and environmental standards. Don’t mistake Ecosia for a charity or non-profit organisation, though – they are for-profit, however, it’s what is done with the profit from paid search that makes this company a little more interesting.

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Ecosia advertises that it donates 80% of the search ad profit to plant trees, and the company says it has planted more than 7.2 million (and counting) since launching – though still, unfortunately, going a very small way to offset the estimated 15 billion trees cut down each year.

Do conservation credentials exceed the search potential?

Looking at the number of users and the frequency of searches, there’s some serious disparity when comparing Ecosia to Google. Ecosia boasts over 5.5 million active users, and receives on average 56 queries per second. Google, in contrast, has over 1.17 billion users, and receives over 40,000 queries every second. It is said that there are 3.7 billion users of the internet around the world, so you can see just how much of a monopoly Google has, claiming almost a third of all this search traffic.

Whilst Ecosia’s figures may appear paltry next to the giant’s, it is wise to remember that mighty oaks from little acorns grow, and the more users Ecosia gets, the more appealing an advertising prospect it becomes.

Everything has to start somewhere, should we be championing this cause?

Ultimately, a search engine needs to fulfil three jobs:

  • It must return results that are helpful to the searcher, and relevant to their query
  • It must be user-friendly, with an easy-to-use interface
  • It must give other options to lead the user to the right result for their query

Ecosia does return relevant results – check. But, Ecosia uses the Yahoo! and Bing algorithms, which many believe are not as developed as the Google algorithms. Whilst Yahoo! and Bing aren’t the Goliaths of search, they do return pretty sound results and are therefore used by millions of people worldwide. Potential users of Ecosia may take comfort in the fact that the company hasn’t tried to create its own propitiatory algorithm – and therefore they won’t be sacrificing search results for environmental benefits.

In a test situation, when searching the term ‘ethical SEO agency’ on Google and Ecosia, I found the results to be fairly relevant to my query, but some of the results were not relevant for my location. On both search engines, the interface is attractive and easy to use, but Google offers more options to help find alternative results. There seems to be fewer ads within the Ecosia SERPs, however, I would likely become slowed down by having non-location specific results appear on page one.

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Integration of the nation – Statista tells us that in July 2016, Android OS held a whopping 48.7% of the market share in the UK.. Since Google is automatically integrated with Android phones, it is a tricky sell getting people to seek out a new search engine when the default works straight from the box, and that is a large proportion of the potential audience in the UK that Ecosia may be missing out on. Having said that, Ecosia is really quick and easy to download as a search bar on your computer, or as an app on your device, so don’t let that put you off too much.

Powering the searches – Ecosia uses Yahoo! and Bing to return the search results – both of which are carbon neutral, but Google has been doing the same for over a decade and is doing the most in terms of carbon offsetting. Yahoo! and Bing have yet to power servers with renewable energy sources. Google does and has been decreasing carbon emissions year on year.

However, before you write off this tree-planting search engine, please note that this isn’t bad news in the greater scheme of things; Ecosia is planting millions of trees that would not have otherwise been planted, and is creating a dedicated and enthusiastic community of bright, techie, environmentally-aware folk who want to help. Helping by contributing financially, and with their knowledge. That all sounds very good to me.

What impact will Ecosia have on digital marketing? Is Ecosia barking up the wrong tree?

With such a tiny slice of the market and with the engine using the same algorithms as Yahoo! and Bing, Ecosia probably isn’t going to upset the balance very much this year, but it is worth keeping an eye on the enterprise as it continues to grow. It has had very little investment since the launch in 2009, yet has had very positive fiscal results and it remains on an upward curve.

In December 2015, the monthly cash inflow was €133,463, of which it donated €62,450 to planting trees. In December 2016, the monthly cash inflow was €276,935 and it donated 83% of the surplus, or €137,000 to planting trees.

Watching the numbers on the ‘how many trees have been planted’ counter within the search bar and on the Ecosia app going up every moment is incredibly satisfying. Ecosia has a dream to plant one billion trees by 2020 and this seems less ambitious than first believed, although any ambitions to knock Google off its perch are likely unfounded.

Having said all of that, if you’re looking for a way to boost your environmental credentials this Earth Day, why not download the app and give Ecosia a try? It’s easy to use, functional, and each time you search you’ll get the feeling of having contributed to something wonderful.

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Figures above true at time of writing (11/04/17).