Brave Search leaves beta, offers Goggles for filtering, personalizing results

Freedom or echo chamber?


Brave Software, maker of a privacy-oriented browser, on Wednesday said its surging search service has exited beta testing while its Goggles search personalization system has entered beta testing.

Brave Search, which debuted a year ago, has received 2.5 billion search queries since then, apparently, and based on current monthly totals is expected to handle twice as many over the next year. The search service is available in the Brave browser and in other browsers by visiting search.brave.com.

"Since launching one year ago, Brave Search has prioritized independence and innovation in order to give users the privacy they deserve," wrote Josep Pujol, chief of search at Brave. "The web is changing, and our incredible growth shows that there is demand for a new player that puts users first."

According to Brave, it took Google more than a year to reach 2.5 billion queries and it took DuckDuckGo, which relies on Microsoft's Bing search engine, over four years to achieve similar search volume.

Brave, which now claims more than 59 million monthly active users, has chosen to compete with Google through a service with a confusingly similar name: Goggles. In an interview with The Register last year, co-founder and CEO Brendan Eich explained that Goggles isn't an attempt to match Google's vast search index. Rather it's an effort to innovate in an environment that Google has allegedly monopolized.

Deep dive into privacy

Goggles, accessible in a tab below the search.brave.com input box on the results page, offers browser users the opportunity to redefine the relevance of search results. Or more simply put, it allows users to select how individual sites are boosted up or brought down in the search results. You prefer The Register to appear higher in your search results? You can create a Goggle to do that.

Brave imposes its own ranking on search results for a given query. And with Goggles, Brave users – individually or as a group – can create their own private or public adjustments to the default order.

Brave says this will allow users to counter any built-in bias in its search results, but a likely consequence is that users or groups of users will be able to craft rules that enforce a different bias. For example, two of the eight "Popular Goggles" surfaced within Brave at the moment include "Left sources," which favors news sources associated with left-leaning politics, and "Right sources," which favors news sources associated with right-leaning politics.

Another potential use for Goggles is the de-ranking or exclusion of websites that publish clickbait or junk content. For example, one of the current "Popular Goggles" is "Copycats removal," which eliminates a vast number of domains that copy content from more popular sources like Stack Overflow. Anyone who has entered programming-oriented queries recently is likely to welcome a way to deal with answer-spam sites.

The syntax for defining a Goggles file (the Domain Specific Language) is simple. It consists of four required lines of metadata in a text file with a .goggle file type identifier:

! name: The Goggle's name 
! description: What the Goggle does 
! public: true or false 
! author: Your name

And allows for additional fields like:

! homepage: the URL displayed on your Goggle's profile. 
! issues: the URL where users can report issues for your Goggle. 
! transferred_to: so ownership of a Goggle can be transferred. 
! avatar: a valid HEX color code for your Goggle. 
! license: the license governing a given Goggle.

The functional part of a Goggles file consists of action definitions, by which websites can have their rank boosted, downranked, or discarded, as detailed in the documentation:

For example:

$boost=4,site=theregister.com

There's also support for wildcard characters and basic pattern matching. To make .goggle files visible to Brave, users simply have to store them on a supported hosting site: gist.github.com, github.com, or gitlab.com. And then they can submit them to Brave. Goggles files are limited to 2MB, cannot contain more than 10,000 instructions, and individual instructions cannot contain more than 500 characters, two wildcard (*) characters, or two caret (^) characters.

"A Goggle is a URL-addressed file of Adblock filter syntax for re-ranking the index to suit your or your community's needs," explained Eich via Twitter.

Content-blocking browser extensions operate similarly to Goggles, relying on various filter lists, like EasyList, that individuals and groups maintain to block obnoxious ads, trackers, and the like. While these extensions are focused on removing both unwanted content and hostile scripts – and perhaps will do a better job thanks to more sophisticated pattern matching – Goggles is optimized for re-ordering search results in addition to hiding junk websites.

"Search engines that depend too much, or exclusively, on Big Tech are subject to their censorship, biases, and editorial decisions," Brave says. "The Web needs multiple search providers – without choice there's no freedom."

How personal is too personal?

Google offers inferred search personalization by gathering information about users and using what it knows to determine how sites should rank in search results.

Goggles goes for declarative search personalization; it allows people to re-rank the web to suit their own biases, for better or worse. How many people will bother to do so remains to be seen – maintaining a lengthy list of re-ranking actions may entail more management burden that most want.

If any particular public Goggle sees widespread adoption, that could in theory alter the information landscape for certain topics. Given recent efforts by at least a dozen states to prohibit schools from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation, efforts to promote compliance through technical interventions might appeal to censorious groups where legal restrictions fall to court challenges.

But for that to become a realistic concern, Brave would need to match the market dominance of firms like Google, Meta's Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter that are currently shaping public perception through search and social media.

Until then, Goggles provides a way to see the web on your own terms rather than someone else's. ®


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