Green search engine Ecosia is protecting the rainforests

The search machine Ecosia
The search machine Ecosia | © ecosia.org

The organization running search engine Ecosia donate a large proportion of their revenue to a reforestation project in Brazil. A good idea – but one that is also criticized. An interview with Shannon Smith, a member of Ecosia’s founding team.

Ms. Smith, Ecosia.org was launched at the end of 2009. At that time, search engine giant Google had already been online for more than 10 years. What induced you to establish your own search engine in the face of that kind of competition?

The first thing to say perhaps is that we are not a company like Google. We do not scour the Internet ourselves. The results that we show are provided by our cooperation partners Yahoo and Bing.

But you are still different from such conventional search engines.

Yes, because a large percentage of the revenue from our website is channeled into environmental projects. The idea came to our CEO Christian Kroll on a world trip. He happened to be stopping off in Nepal and he established his first search engine there. At the time his aim was to support nonprofit projects in Kathmandu, the country’s capital.

So Ecosia was established in Nepal?

No. The search engine that he launched there no longer exists. Working in Kathmandu proved to be difficult. The power supply was very erratic. He then established a second search engine in Argentina, another stopping-off point on his world trip – and that still wasn’t Ecosia. It was based on the Google search engine. However, Google dropped out after only a few days.

How come?

The complaint was that the site was distorting the search results by means of “fake clicks” – in other words, our users were only clicking onto advertising to boost the donation figure. But there is software which can filter out users of that kind. In fact, Google did not give us any real reasons. Then, when Christian came back from his world trip he founded Ecosia. And not long after that I came on board.

How do you earn your money?

Just like all the other search engines – through advertising. Adverts are placed between the search results. If users click onto these Yahoo and Bing receive money. Part of this money is paid to us. We also offer special links, something known as EcoLinks. These lead to retail websites. If we are the reason why a user accesses such sites and orders something from them, we receive a commission.

“One tree every 28 seconds”

And how is the money redistributed?

Ecosia keeps 20 percent of the proceeds. At the moment, the rest is channeled into the Plant A Billion Trees program organized by our partner The Nature Conservancy. In April, for example, a total of €110,000 was donated. The purpose of the project is to foster reforestation of the coastline rainforest in Brazil. With Ecosia’s contribution a tree can be planted – statistically speaking – every 28 seconds.

But is the math really so easy? Critics accuse Ecosia of fraud, saying that you are earning money under the guise of environmental protection.

The math concerning the trees is correct and the money does reach the relevant projects. However, we do need to work on making the program in Brazil better understood, i.e., on showing users exactly what is being done there. Apart from that, we try to ensure maximum transparency. For example, we disclose the exact amount of donations every month and have recently started following the project on our blog.

“The servers run on green power”

The critics go even further, claiming that Ecosia’s approach is wrong. According to them, search engines just cannot be environmentally friendly. The servers with which the searches are conducted use a very large amount of power. This means that carbon dioxide is emitted which is, in turn, environmentally damaging.

We are aware of this which is why we try to compensate for it, or at least for the emissions for which we are responsible. The servers on which our website runs are operated exclusivity with green power. We also support projects that cut worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.

And this offsets the emissions caused by the entire search?

Unfortunately, this is something that we don’t know exactly. The problem is that our partners Yahoo and Bing do not tell us how much carbon dioxide is produced by a search. Accordingly, we can only hope that our certificates and the trees that are planted in Brazil thanks to our efforts will in themselves suffice.

In the long term could Ecosia become the kind of search engine that no longer needs any partners?

That is our objective. Only it costs a lot of money to develop an algorithm. And we just don’t have those kinds of resources. After all, we are donating 80 percent of our revenues to a good cause. But we are trying to gradually become more independent.