It was in 1997, in a homely student bedroom in Preston, that I started flirting with Google. Back then, I used Yahoo or Excite as my go-to search engines. But Google was new and exciting. It had a nice minimalist format compared to the other sites. It seemed friendly and approachable. Innocent, maybe.
It was one of many great things to happen during that optimistic time for the UK. The Labour Party had just enjoyed a landslide general election victory under Tony Blair, J. K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book was released, Steve Jobs returned to run Apple Computers, and Chumbawamba was in the top 10 for Tubthumping.
Most importantly, we were the first year at the University of Central Lancashire to have access to the Internet from our halls of residence. Which was why I carried a huge PC and box-shaped monitor, clunky keyboard and mouse, and ginormous printer up four flights of stairs. It was worth it. No adults or parents, complete freedom and the World Wide Web at our fingertips. What could go wrong?
Why I've fallen out of love with Google
Fast-forward to nearly 25 years later, and Google is like the old university boyfriend I'd rather forget. Sure, it seemed nice at the time. But despite being fun, it slowly became toxic, as Britney Spears beautifully sang: "Baby, can't you see I'm calling? A guy like you should wear a warning. It's dangerous, I'm falling. There's no escape, I can't wait. I need a hit, baby, give it to me. You're dangerous, I'm loving it".
Perhaps not entirely related to Google, but I do liken the world's biggest search engine and its various products and services to a bad boyfriend you know you should ditch but can never find the time or courage to do so. If that makes any sense, you don't wish them dead. Of course not. And nothing is black and white – like people, Google has many layers and dimensions. I don't believe they're evil. Like the ex, they'll still be around, I'll still bump into them, and I'll say a sincere hello, remembering the good times, and wish them very well.
But I've broken up with Google as much as is feasibly possible without damaging my ventures. And not all parts of Google, either. Just the ones I feel are worthwhile reassessing. Like Google Search, Gmail and a few others.
But first, why bother with ditching Google Search? That was undoubtedly the question put to me by a friend today. Well, here are some facts courtesy of DuckDuckGo:
- Google trackers are lurking on 75% of websites – this means they are not only tracking what you search for, but they're also tracking which websites you visit (Source: Princetown WebTAP)
- Google uses your data for ads that follow you around – they let advertisers track you across two million (yes, two million) different websites and apps (Source: Google AdWords – lol!)
- Your data remains in Google indefinitely – it can be subpoenaed by lawyers, including civil cases like divorce. Google answered over 100,000 requests in 2020, and that figure keeps going up! (Source: Google Requests for User Information – lol some more!)
The above is just a hint at why it's an excellent idea to de-Google ourselves. But there is further reading courtesy of Professor Shoshana Zuboff's latest book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Plus Zach Vorhies and Kent Heckenlively's Google Leaks. And the icing on the cake is Edward Snowden's Permanent Record, which gives you an idea of why our privacy is worth defending.
I don't need any further convincing, meanwhile. Google was great for a long time until the truth was hammering so hard in my face that de-Googling became a vast, almost obsessive priority.
A life away from Google
As of today, I've finally migrated all of my emails from Gmail to Fastmail – a security-focused email service provider that more than respects our privacy. There were 100,000 odd emails to migrate, but it took less than 90 minutes to sort. Even with so many email addresses to organise, it was a straightforward, headache-free process.
But to be sure, I'll wait for a few months before I delete my old Gmail account. At that point, I'll ask Google to forget me, remove all searches, delete my profile – everything I can to move away from that toxic uni boyfriend.
De-googling elsewhere has been underway for over a year. We removed Google Analytics from Creative Boom in the middle of 2020, choosing instead to use the privacy-focused analytics tool that is Plausible.
Regarding browser windows, it's goodbye Google Chrome and hello Firefox or Safari from now on – both of which are privacy-focused. As for search, I'm a fan of DuckDuckGo, but others recommend Startpage, too.
I've also taken steps to remove myself from Google Drive or Documents. There's even Google Authenticator, which I'll extract myself from over the next few days and opt for something like Authy for 2FA.
For calendars, I'll continue to use Apple Calendar (Apple is a big advocate of privacy), but I'll perhaps consider switching to Fantastical. From what I've heard so far, it's a superb app for managing events, tasks and meetings across all devices. Winning!
An alternative future
Like with any of these things, it's never easy to change the tools and services we use. Particularly if they've served us so well for 25 years. Google indeed makes incredible products. There's no doubt about it. I'm not sure I can delete Google Maps: it's insanely good.
But as privacy is now my top priority as I head into 2022, it's time for a new relationship. I'm still somewhat fond of Google, believe it or not. And I'll continue to use some of its outstanding products – for example, relying on search to drive traffic to my venture. But there's now a better awareness of what I'm using overall.
If you're curious or beginning a similar breakup journey, might I recommend Switching Software? It's a superb resource that suggests "ethical, easy-to-use and privacy-conscious alternatives to well-known software". From Adobe Photoshop and Evernote to MeetUp and WeTransfer. But first, Google! It's over. We're done. I'm looking for someone who'll treat me with respect. And in this case, it really isn't me. It's you. Goodbye Google.
Once again, I'd like to thank Dave Smyth for inspiring so much of the above. He's our next podcast guest on Creative Boom, so if you're interested in this topic, be sure to listen and subscribe.