A Search Engine that Saves the Rain Forest?

What if you could make the world a greener place merely by using the right search engine? That’s the question posed by Ecosia, a newcomer to a field dominated by Google. Is this just a gimmick? Or can we really make this a greener world simply by clicking?

Competing with Google in any capacity is becoming increasingly difficult to do. Whether it’s the tech giant’s new Android technology gaining ground on the ever-popular iPhone, the company’s Fast Flip news service compiling more daily website hits than the actual websites from which the news articles featured originated, or Google Voice giving conventional cell phone service providers a run for their money, it’s clear that Google dominates at just about every endeavor.

First and foremost, however, Google began as a pretty basic search engine, and this service continues to be at the forefront of it all. How many other search engines can boast 3 million users or 2 billion searches each and every day? Surely not very many, which is why "Googling" something has become part of our lexicon for the twenty-first century. After all, have you ever heard someone say they "Yahooed" a term or "Ask-Jeeved" song lyrics? It’s pretty doubtful.

The point, of course, is that fledgling search engines must have a "gimmick" or rather, something that makes them stand out; something that gives them the initial attention they need to get the ball rolling. Perhaps it’s unfair to say, but it seems as if the easiest way to do this these days is by claiming to be green or environmentally conscious. We’ve all heard the unsettling statistics about global warming and perhaps some of us have even noticed the difference in weather in our neck of the woods.

At a time when many of us are educating ourselves on how to be more eco-conscious and trying to make a genuine effort to recycle, reserve, and reuse, countless companies are using the green angle as a marketing tactic — claiming to be green, energy efficient, or sustainable, without really being any of those things. Well, there’s a new search engine that hopes to one day rival Google, and it claims that its users will save two square meters of rain forest each and every time they submit a search. Is this a ploy to get more users, or is there any truth to this claim?

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Ecosia is the website in question, and according to the search engine’s founder, Christian Kroll, Ecosia servers run on green electricity and a whopping 80 percent of the income generated from the search engine’s sponsored links will be donated to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Yahoo and Bing, two fairly popular search engines, have decided to join forces and help the startup search engine by providing Ecosia with search results and sponsored links. "I think that by combining Yahoo and Bing we can keep up with Google," Kroll said.

Kroll is just twenty-six years old, but this isn’t his first attempt to get an eco-conscious site off the ground. In 2008, he founded another environmentally-focused search engine called Forestle.

According to Kroll, the site was popular in his native Germany, but it didn’t attract the attention of international markets that he wanted. "I wanted to make the idea available to the world," Kroll said. "That’s why I founded Ecosia."

Officially, Ecosia didn’t launch until December 7, 2009, which was the same day that the World Climate Summit was held in Copenhagen. According to the site, deforestation of the tropical rain forests is the single most important source of CO2 emissions in the world, which is why Kroll is campaigning to stop it with his new search engine.

World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature, the recipient of Ecosia’s earnings, recently said in a press release that the average Internet user can protect about 2,000 square meters of rain forest every year by using Ecosia, which is about the size of an ice hockey rink. WWF also stated that if only one percent of global Internet users access Ecosia for their Web searches, a rain forest area as big as Switzerland could be saved each year.

Eberhard Brandes, head of WWF Germany, said, "The green search engine is a very modern and innovative approach, allowing its users to help save the world’s climate effortlessly." There is one important question that needs to be answered, though: how exactly is all of this possible?

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In a video featured on the Ecosia website, it’s explained how major search engines–with an emphasis on Google–make their money through the sponsored links featured on the results page of each search that’s conducted. According to the video, it’s estimated that Google receives one cent for every search conducted by a Google user. It may not sound like a lot, but when considering the number of searches conducted on the site each day, it quickly becomes apparent just how much money Google is capable of bringing in based on the revenue from these ads alone.

Simply put: searching for information on Ecosia doesn’t directly save the rain forest. It’s more of a clever marketing tactic than anything else. It’s never really clearly explained how Ecosia can verify its claim that it will save two square meters or rain forest per search.

The meandering video, which jumps from CO2 emissions created by servers to the deforestation of the rain forest, specifically claims that "each search on Ecosia saves a piece of the rain forest." This is incredibly misleading. Rather, each search that results in a user clicking on a sponsored link leads to the donation of a few cents to the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Chances are, a majority of Internet users are unaware that Ecosia even exists, which means that 80 percent of the small amount of money generated by the site will go to WWF, but how effective that money will be or how much it will actually change what’s happening in the rain forest cannot be known.

Still, the fact that 80 percent of Ecosia’s revenue is going to WWF is impressive. The fact that the company runs on green energy is incredibly noble, but making such grandiose claims without providing users with the information that explains how all of this happens — if at all — seems socially irresponsible.

Why not just say a large percentage of the site’s revenue is being donated to a charity that helps to save the rain forests? Apparently, that wouldn’t drum up enough publicity, especially not when you’re in competition with a giant like Google. According to Ecosia, 4,659,136 yards of the rain forest have already been saved, thanks to searches on the site.

If that claim is true, wouldn’t it have made national news? The problem with the claim is that it doesn’t lead to immediate change; it simply leads to a donation. In other words, it’s not something users can see or even verify. The money generated can be used for a number of purposes at WWF, some of which may include simply keeping the organization afloat. Money that goes towards keeping a green organization in existence doesn’t necessarily directly help or benefit the rain forest.

The closest we get to an explanation as to how the yardage was reached can be found on Ecosia’s FAQs section. According to the site, each click on a sponsored link generates a few cents of revenue for the site, with about two percent of search requests ending up with a click on a sponsored link. As previously mentioned, 80 percent of that money is donated to a rain forest protection project run by the WWF. The project itself is located in the Juruena National Park in Brazil and according to Ecosia, it only costs about seven U.S. dollars to protect an entire hectare of rain forest there. "So based on our average earnings per search, we can save about two square meters for each search," the website says.

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It’s a nice gesture, and admittedly a green one, but whether or not it makes Ecosia "the greenest search engine," as the site claims, is questionable. Ecosia’s angle or marketing strategy is that by using the search engine, users are actively participating in preserving rain forests, thereby keeping the planet cooler and protecting vital biodiversity.

The claim is excessive ,and shouldn’t be as simplified. Many factors go into it these types of donations, including which projects are funded and ultimately, how successful they end up being.

It should also be pointed out that saving rain forests is much more complicated than simply urging people who are sitting at their computer to click away on sponsored results. It’s actually the people in the trenches, those who are in Brazil doing the actual work required to save or at least help the rain forests that should be applauded.

Criticism of Ecosia aside, getting the necessary funding for those in the trenches is also a big part of the battle. Technically every little bit-or in this case, every click–the new search engine compiles is helpful in its own way, but it’s the sensationalism of the claims that consumers can do without.

Whether or not Ecosia is the greenest search engine on the web can’t be verified, just as its claim of saving two meters per click on sponsored results can’t be verified either. What is true, however, is that teaming up with WWF to raise funds for such a vital issue is important and respectable, so let’s leave it at that.

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