A few weeks ago a Dutch friend of mine introduced me to Ecosia, the Berlin-based social enterprise eco search engine that uses their profits to plant trees (that’s a mouthful).
The idea immediately clicked with me for a few reasons I’ll discuss below.
Ecosia has a model that’s ripe to explode with a millennial generation that truly does care about how sustainable their products are. Unfortunately projects that set out to do great for the world often receive criticism, and the Ecosia search engine won’t be immune.
There were two major things that I wanted to learn about Ecosia:
Is Ecosia legit? Or is it a scam?
Does it work as well as Google?
Let’s make legitimacy the first thing we look at in this Ecosia critique because that’s the most important part.
Is Ecosia legit or a scam?
There are a few things that come to mind that they could be doing to try to mislead users if they wanted to, such as:
Not planting the trees they claim to
Collecting user data to resell or other privacy issues
Offering misleading search results for their gain
Monitoring your data illegally with their browser extension
I think the big concern here is that they might not be planting the trees they claim to be. In 2019 Ecosia claims to have surpassed 65 million trees planted.
While this is well shy of the ~1.5 trillion trees that experts say are needed to offset the carbon we’ve added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, it’s still nothing to laugh at. Ecosia after all is still a pretty small company with roughly 8 million users (although this is growing really fast).
As far as the misleading search results or collecting data go, this isn’t really something we can test. But given the track record of the team at Ecosia I’m pretty confident they aren’t out to scam people.
While you can’t really dispute the claims made by 2Spyware, just keep in mind that literally everything they criticize about Ecosia is also true for Google, Bing, Yahoo, and any other search engine you use.
They claim that Ecosia may hijack your search results and place ads in them… ummm yeah that’s exactly the point, we’re trying to pay for trees here! But they do it in no way different than when Google places ads in your search results, Google just dishes out the profits to their investors instead of planting trees.
They even go as far as to say “getting rid of the Ecosia virus”, which is just absurd to me. I have a feeling this article was written by someone who hasn’t ever used Ecosia and was directed to write about Ecosia being a virus to get the search traffic.
While I do think those accusations against Ecosia aren’t based on rationality, I also have to acknowledge that they could be true, just like Google could be a virus.
My advice is to check out the Ecosia teamand see if these are folks you’re willing to trust with your online data. Personally, I’m not concerned about an ecosia.org virus.
Is Ecosia fake?
Quite a few people have written in and asked if Ecosia is downright fake. A lot are even curious if there’s an Ecosia Snopes article to verify their claims. I’m doing my best to fill those shoes and more in this article.
Usually it comes back down to the four points I had listed above, but many who write in aren’t even sure if the extension is going to work properly. You’ll see in the coming paragraphs that of anything you can say about Ecosia, their product is definitely real, so I think we can lay that one to rest.
Does Ecosia Really Plant All Those Trees?
I can point you to two different resources for this. The first one is their financial reports, and the second is their tree projects. The financial reports will have to be taken at face value as Ecosia is not a public company, there is no Ecosia stock, or all the auditing and regulation that comes with it.
Ecosia Financial Reports
Update August 2019: This article was originally written in March 2018 so I’m updating the financial report as they have grown from investing €421,370 per month to a whopping €815,378 per month in July 2019 (nearly $1,000,000 per month on trees!).
Looking through the past 4 years of financial reports looks to be quite consistent. Don’t let the fact that €815,378 is only 52% of their monthly revenue of €1,567,995 fool you into thinking that they aren’t honoring their pledge to use 80% of profits to plant trees, you have to subtract out the expenses before making the calculation.
So basically:€1,567,995 – (€475,862 + €78,465) = €1,013,668 (Revenue – (Operating Costs + Spreading the Word) = Total Profit)
Then take €815,378 / €1,013,668 = .8044 or 80.44% (Tree Planting Spend / Total Profit = % of Profit Spent on Tree Planting)
So this means in July Ecosia claims to have spent slightly more than their goal on planting trees. They’re also being smart and packing away a significant amount of money for the future — with a reserve of €198,290 — because they’ve got a new initiative to make bigger investments like the solar plant in
Remember though, this is a self reported breakdown that as far as I can tell has not been independently audited. How do we actually know if Ecosia is planting these trees or not?
Tree Projects Supported by Ecosia
From what I’ve been able to find Ecosia is currently supporting projects in the following countries around the world:
Ecosia sent me the countries above in May 2015 as the complete list where their projects are. Hopefully they’ll keep sending updates as they come. You can also check out Ecosia’s tree projects blog to see some really cool content about what they’re doing with the money. The Tanzania post has some really cool footage!
I’ve also received quite a few messages from readers that are involved in Ecosia’s reforestation projects. Not that this couldn’t be faked, but they all seem very real.
I would love it if someone working with Ecosia would send some pictures from the front lines that I can put in this article. If that’s you, send me a message.
How does Ecosia make money?
Ecosia makes money in the same way that Google’s search engine makes money, through search engine ads. I say search engine because Google makes money hand-over-fist in a ton of other ways beyond its core search engine product.
So this means if you search for local plumbers on Ecosia and click one of the advertised services, 80% of the amount that the plumber pays for that ad will go to planting trees (after deducting expenses as pointed out by Lee in the comments), pretty cool huh??
One of the reasons I’m pretty excited for the future of Ecosia is because as of now it’s only a simple search engine and it’s making a pretty decent chunk of profit, imagine if they create a display ad network, video platform (like YouTube), data & cloud services, and everything else Google does. Ecosia could single handedly plant all the trees that the earth needs, and maybe even move on to support other good causes as well.
Ecosia vs Google
**UPDATE: Ecosia now has some cool shortcuts as pointed out by Felix in the comments. If you type in #g after your search it will take you straight to Google, #fb takes you straight to a Facebook search, #yt for YouTube, etc. You can see the full list of shortcuts on Ecosia’s support page on search tags.**
So there are a variety of ways to compare the two services. I’ll break it down into two main parts: utility and user experience. I want to make sure I’m setting realistic expectations here. Google is the 8 gazillion pound gorilla in the room. They’ve spent billions of dollars over more than 20 years making the best search tools imaginable.
We simply can’t expect Ecosia.org to outperform Google in just about anything besides doing amazing things for our planet by planting trees (although they do win at one other thing, check it out below).
What I’m saying is let’s keep in mind that the main goal is to do good for the planet, and find what level of sacrifice we’re willing to endure to make that happen.
Also, keep in mind that Ecosia does have a development team so their search engine should only improve with time. I wouldn’t expect it to ever beat Google unless there’s a sudden mass migration to the eco-friendly search engine, but maybe the sacrifices will diminish.
Lastly, Ecosia is built on top of the Microsoft Bing search engine so you’ll find that many of the core limitations of Ecosia are actually limitations of Bing.
Alright so let’s start off with the utility of Ecosia.org vs Google.com.
Utility of Ecosia vs Google
This is all about how much time each search engine is able to save and the quality of information delivered. Do you have to click through to an article to find out what time a show is at or will it be delivered in rich snippet like Google often does? Are relevant results being shown?
Let’s take a peek at what Ecosia is capable of. I think literally everyone reading this is familiar with Google so I’ll mostly only provide images of Ecosia unless the comparison makes sense.
One of those things that I’ve really come to take for granted with Google is being able to quickly rattle off one unit and ask for another. Ecosia does a decent job at this. They’ve got most of the basic conversions, like inches to centimeters:
As a frequent traveler I use this feature a lot. Unfortunately Ecosia isn’t able to calculate simple distances in the search engine results page (SERP) yet. This is a pretty big bummer:
Currently when you want to use the maps feature on Ecosia.org it will take you straight to Google Maps. In my eyes this is way better than trying to hack together some in-house solution that really doesn’t work well (looking at you Apple).
I wouldn’t even dock them any points for this because they send you to the best service available and there isn’t much lag time in the redirect.
Here’s another area where Ecosia is trailing behind Google. I love how when I google a single word Google seems to know if I’m searching for a definition. I tried typing in “social enterprise” and “define social enterprise” and neither of them brought up that incredibly useful rich snippet definition that I’ve taken for granted on Google.
Then take a look at what happens if you type the same search in on Google. You don’t have to click through to get the full definition. Often times the rich snippet on Google is even better than this one, saving you from having to click through to another page:
You also get that awesome frequently asked questions box with Google, I haven’t seen that at all in Ecosia.
User Experience of Ecosia vs Google
As much as I love what Google is able to do, I have to admit over the last year or two I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated with how aggressive they’re getting with their advertising. I’m a digital marketer by day so I saw first hand the effect of Google’s rollout of the Local Service ads last summer.
Basically they introduced an entirely extra set of ads when someone searches for local service providers, they just package them in a cute new way:
Notice anything funny about that page? Literally everything that shows up on the screen when searching for a local service provider is a paid advertisement. Then, you scroll down and see the map with listings below it which are NOT paid, but still not totally organic results (you have to register with Google to be in this). Only when you scroll down to practically the bottom of the page do you see organic search results.
Compare this to Ecosia when searching for a local service provider:
I mean there are still a lot of ads. But at least I can see some results that weren’t paid to be placed. This seems like a fundamental freedom of using the internet. I understand that Google’s search engine is a product provided by a company and they’re free to do whatever they want with it, but honestly I think that they’re pushing it too far with this.
“Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
..if in fact the highest bidder is determining the organization of information?
A lot of people seem to be asking about this recently. To me that’s good news. It means more and more people are waking up to the fact that we need to take some action for the environment and do something simple like use an alternative search engine.
nothing that isn’t standard in privacy policies
a lot less scary stuff than Google has
I will say — you aren’t getting the same kind of pro-privacy with Ecosia as you would with something like DuckDuckGo — but for me it’s a happy middle ground. Your tolerance will vary based on how hardcore you are for protecting your online privacy.
How to Uninstall Ecosia Extension
As great as Ecosia’s mission is to solve many of the world’s greatest problems by planting trees funded with search revenue, it’s understandable that for some the convenience of Google’s advanced features will prevail. If this is you, then have no fear because it’s pretty easy to uninstall Ecosia at any time.
Assuming you’ve installed the Ecosia extension on Google Chrome follow these instructions:
Go to the drop down menu with three dots in the top right of the browser
Hover over More Tools
Click on Extensions
Find the Ecosia extension and either click the toggle switch to deactivate it, or Delete to completely uninstall it
That’s it, now you’ve uninstalled the Ecosia.org extension and all your settings will go back to what they were before. Hopefully you’ll reconsider in the future for the sake of the planet :)
Conclusion on Ecosia Search Engine
As of now Ecosia falls short of Google in certain areas. The question of whether or not it’s still worth using Ecosia will depend on your level of dedication to protecting the environment. Eventually we as a society will have to begin making lifestyle compromises if we don’t want our grandchildren to end up living in climate controlled glass bubbles.
What I’ve decided to do is have Ecosia as the default and if it doesn’t give me the results I’m looking for I just use the awesome shortcuts pointed out by Felix in the comments.
I’m really hoping that Ecosia builds out some new features in the coming years so I won’t even have to think about Google though.
I worry that if a person isn’t willing to have a little sacrifice in the utility of their search engine for the sake of the environment, are they willing to sacrifice anything?
Join 8+ million of us saving the world with Ecosia:
**FYI -- this link has patharoundtheworld in it but it is NOT an affiliate link, I do not earn anything for you installing. Ecosia simply gave me the link so I could know how many trees this article has helped plant.