Followup to: Use Search Engines Early and Often

Last year, I posted about using search engines and particularly recommended GoodSearch, a site that donates one cent to a charity of your choice whenever you make a (Bing-powered) search via their site.

At the time, some seemed skeptical of this recommendation, and my post was actually downvoted-- people thought that I was plugging GoodSearch too hard without enough evidence for its quality. I now want to return to the topic with a more detailed report on my experience using GoodSearch for a year and how that has worked out for me.

What is GoodSearch?

GoodSearch is a site that donates one cent to a charity of your choice whenever you make a search using their (Bing-powered) service. You can set this search to operate in your browser just like any other.

GoodSearch for Charity

During a year of using GoodSearch, I raised $103.00 for MIRI through making searches. This number is not particularly huge in itself, but it is meaningful because this was basically "free money"-- money gained in exchange for doing things that I was already doing. In exchange for spending ~10 minutes reconfiguring my default searches and occasionally logging in to GoodSearch, I made 103 dollars for MIRI-- approximately $600/hour. As my current earning potential is less than $600/hour, I consider adopting GoodSearch a highly efficient method of donating to charity, at least for me.

It is possible that you make many fewer searches than I do, and thus that setting up GoodSearch will not be very effective for you at raising money. Indeed, I think this is at least somewhat likely, as last time I checked owever, there are two mitigating factors here:

First, you don't have to make all that many searches for GoodSearch to be a good idea. If you make a tenth of the searches I do in a year, you would still be earning around $60/hour for charity by configuring GoodSearch for ten minutes.

Second, I anticipate that, having created a GoodSearch account and configured my default settings to use GoodSearch, I have accomplished the bulk of this task, and that next year I will spend significantly less time setting up GoodSearch-- perhaps half that, if not less. This means that my projected returns on using GoodSearch next year are $1200/hour! If this holds true for you as well, even if setting up GoodSearch is marginal now, it could well be worth it later.

It is also of course possible that you will make many more searches than I do, and thus that setting up GoodSearch will be even more effective for you than it is for me. I think this is somewhat unlikely, as I consider myself rather good at using search engines and quick to use them to resolve problems, but I would love to be proven wrong.

GoodSearch for Personal Effectiveness

Perhaps more importantly, though, I found that using GoodSearch was a very effective way of getting me to search more often. I had previously identified not using search engines as often as I could as a weakness that was causing me to handle some matters inefficiently. In general, there are many situations where the value of information that can be obtained by using search engines is high, but one may not be inclined to search immediately.

For me, using GoodSearch solved this problem; while a single cent to MIRI for each search doesn't seem like much, it was enough to give me a little ping of happiness every time I searched for anything, which in turn was enough to reinforce my searching habit and take things to the next level. GoodSearch essentially created a success spiral that led to me using both search engines and the Internet itself much more effectively.

Disavantages of GoodSearch

GoodSearch has one notable disadvantage-- it is powered by Bing rather than by Google search. When I first tried GoodSearch, I expected search quality to be much worse. In practice, though, I found that my fears were overblown. GoodSearch results were completely fine in almost all cases, and in the few situations where it proved insufficient, I could easily retry a search in Google-- though often Google too lacked the information I was looking for.

If you are a Google search "power user" (if you don't know if you are, you probably aren't), GoodSearch may not work well for you, as you will be accustomed to using methods that may no longer apply.


After a year of using GoodSearch, I found it to be both an effective way to earn money for charity and an effective way to motivate myself to use search engines more often. I suggest that other users try using GoodSearch and seeing if it has similarly positive effects; the costs of trying this are very low and the potential upside is high.

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22 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:33 AM

I just signed up and nominated CFAR as a cause. In the meantime, I selected MIRI. It seems like free money from the perspective of the cause.

EDIT: Goodsearch does not have a canned search provider for IE, so I used to create one. (P.S. No making fun of me for using IE. It's a work laptop.)

Max L.

I set goodsearch up to donate to GiveWell.

Goodsearch takes 2 or 3 seconds more than Bing, let alone google. $18/hour.
Also, it has a lot more ads, at least on searches that have ads.

It doesn't take significantly longer for me (I just did a side-by-side comparison and couldn't tell the difference), though I have Google Fiber at home and pretty fast Internet at work. I also didn't notice the ads until you pointed that out and don't consider them particularly annoying.

That said, if these are persistent stumbling blocks then by all means don't use this service. If Goodsearch took 2-3 seconds more than Bing/Google for me I would certainly not use it.

Do you have an example of a valuable search you made recently that you wouldn't have made last year? I'm having trouble telling whether I use search engines an optimal amount.

The example that springs to mind most readily is that a few days ago, someone asked me if we had a video cable I hadn't heard of in the office. I didn't recognize the name but knew I'd recognize it by sight, so I searched for the name of the cable online, found a picture of it, and directed the person to the right location.


Does it work with adblock? I have preferences against being solicited with advertisements --- and I presume that is where the charity money is coming from.

From what I understand - third party companies get paid for referrals - for a search request and it is probably too costly to also check if they have adblock. so it probably works.

But seconded. Did you use adblock, katydee?

edited I just registered and even with AdBlock my first couple of searches show up as 3c to MIRI

At the time, some seemed skeptical of this recommendation, and my post was actually downvoted-- people thought that I was plugging GoodSearch too hard without enough evidence for its quality. I now want to return to the topic with a more detailed report on my experience using GoodSearch for a year and how that has worked out for me.

I commend you on taking that situation as a learning experience, and doing better instead abandoning your object entirely. You deserve up-votes just for that.

I'm curious how the system works? Is it a marketing ploy by bing? The add revenue that they get per-search exceeds the $0.01, so they can afford to undercut Google's "prices", in a manner of speaking?

I wouldn't be opposed to having some adverts on LessWrong paying for site maintenance and donating to MIRI, FHI, CFAR, GiveWell. Any major one I forgot?

This might be a great plugin for the browser: Install it, have it display ads on either all (charitable) sites to pay out to the specific sites, a specific charity or have adverts only on specific sites. Kind of like a reverse adblock.

This might be a great plugin for the browser: Install it, have it display ads on either all (charitable) sites to pay out to the specific sites, a specific charity or have adverts only on specific sites. Kind of like a reverse adblock.

humancredit tries to set up a network to do something like this. The system they want to create is a bit more complex but if it scales it might move a big chunk of money.

Basically advertisers pay for a seal that means that their advertising supports a good NGO. Users can install a browser plugin and vote on ads they are shown (this gives advertises additional data that they want to pay for) and vote towards which foundations the money get's donated.

*Disclosure: Once of the guys behind the project is a Facebook friend of mine.

This post has put me in a state of mild existential horror.

After a year of using GoodSearch, I found it to be both an effective way to earn money for charity and an effective way to motivate myself to use search engines more often.

I'd like to suggest that it's a grossly ineffective way to earn money for charity, and a perverse way to motivate oneself to use search engines more often. That said, it's not obvious to me that it isn't strictly better than the alternative (no searching, no charity) for some non-negligible set of people.

I don't understand why you think it is a grossly ineffective way to earn money for charity. Please could you explain why you think this is?

Because it's just capturing a small subset of your personal contribution to advertising revenue, which is tiny in the first place.

You would not (I hope) consider funding something you actually cared about (rent, food on the table, credit card bills, etc.) by a similar mechanism. This is in part because it's grossly inefficient at monetising your effort. It's certainly not, as the OP claims, $600/hour in any meaningful sense. The only thing it has going for it is that you're carrying out that effort anyway.

I think there is a problem in how we are using the word 'ineffective'. I think you are using the word to mean 'very small absolute amounts' whereas I am using the word to mean something like 'low opportunity cost : return ratio'. I think looking at the cost : return ratio is fairer, and I also think 'very small absolute amount' is misleading.

I did 46 searches on my work computer yesterday, and probably a handful more on mobile devices. Say 50 for the sake of argument, or $0.50. Over a year this is $130 dollars if I make no searches at weekends. I agree with katydee that it would probably take about ten minutes to configure my search settings, so I am better advised to spend ten minutes configuring my search settings than work a marginal ten minutes and donating the procedes so long as my salary is less than about $800 an hour. Based on the 2013 LessWrong Survey, around 1500 LessWrong users have a salary of less than $800 an hour, so if they all configured their internet settings in that way they would raise about $200,000 for a charity of their choice. I can't find an official budget for MIRI, but I'd estimate that it is somewhere between $0.5m and $1m per year, so that's a pretty meaningful amount.

Another interpretation of your argument is that it is inefficient to do needless searches on GoodSearch to earn money for charity. This is a good argument; if it takes (say) five seconds to do a search then you are better off working a marginal hour as long as your salary is above $7.20 per hour. But I don't think anyone is actually arguing that - the idea is just to monetise searches you would be making anyway, since recapturing a small (non-zero) fraction of your personal contribution to advertising is strictly better than recapturing a zero-size contribution to your personal contribution to advertising.

I am using it in the context of a rate of return on effort. So are you, though I'd politely describe your definition as "bespoke".

The way both you and the OP are evaluating the decision is not how you do cost-benefit analysis. If you treat the ten minute setup time as the only input, and project arbitrarily into the future by discounting inputs you're already doing, you can value that ten minutes to ludicrous levels which you clearly shouldn't be reasoning with. The OP in fact does this by observing that after two years of GoodSearching, they will have returns of $1200 / hour. For evaluation purposes, you can't keep dining out on the same ten minutes.

This isn't to say people shouldn't do what the OP is suggesting. If you want to, knock your socks off. Just don't go round telling people that by 2040 you'll have earned $16,000 per hour for charity.

[Edited for a stray "concrete" which shouldn't have been there]

Why not? Genuine question, because my job is pretty much nothing but cost-benefit analysis of fixed-cost projects which pay off a small amount every year, and the calculation you describe as 'not how you do cost-benefit analysis' is almost exactly how I would do a cost-benefit analysis of this kind (although I wouldn't phrase it as $1200 / hour because that's clunky, I'd probably talk about a percentage return on investment). I rate the probability that I am wrong here as extremely small, but if I am wrong I really need to hear it, and have the problem explained to me.

If I were totally comitted to getting the most accurate answer I'd add a couple of complications that katydee doesn't - for example;

  • I would discount against the possibility that GoodSearch no longer exists in 2040 (and discount future earnings more generally),

  • I would try to estimate a probability that I'd need to reconfigure my settings in the future, and estimate timings for that (if both Chrome and GoodSearch are still around in 30 years I'd be surprised!)

But ignoring these complications for the moment I think it is totally accurate to say in 2040, "I have donated $16,000 to charity since 2014". I think the $1200/hour rhetoric is unhelpful, because it implies that you could earn another $1200 by working another hour, when in fact you don't actually ever earn $1200 (well, I suppose you do after about a decade) and you can only earn the money over a very long period of time. I would probably describe it as a 'Nominal Rate of Return of X% per annum over Y years', compared to a nominal rate of return of almost zero percent per annum if I don't search with GoodSearch (it is possible my advertising generates a multiplier effect which has a tiny positive externality on me, but I'd expect this to be almost totally negligable)

Where is the error in my reasoning?

OK. First of all, super-kudos for this response, and I apologise if I've come across as uncivil, which I probably have.

I don't have a problem with your reasoning that, all other things being equal, earning some money for charity for what you'd ordinarily do is better than earning no money for charity for what you'd ordinarily do. I have a problem with how you appraise the value of ten minutes of work.

So, your reasoning:

  • It will take ten minutes to change your search settings
  • Changing your search settings will earn 50 cents a day for charity
  • Over one year, that's ~$130
  • That's ~$130 { in the implicit context of one year } for ten minutes work
  • There's nothing else you can do in the next ten minutes that will earn $130 { context-free }
  • Therefore rather than working a marginal ten minutes you're best off changing your search settings

Why one year? This seems a completely arbitrary selection, and yet it absolutely determines the value you're comparing to your opportunity cost, (which in your worked example you specify in $/hour, so not in the context of one year). You could specify five years as your time-horizon and your expected value for that ten minutes would be huge, or two hours and it would be tiny.

Fundamentally, the money is generated by future search activity, and even though this search activity is "free" in the sense that it's happening anyway, it's not actually free for purposes of cost-benefit analysis (it still carries an opportunity cost), and you still need to consider it as an input, otherwise you have no reference for the time horizon over which you generate outputs. It is in this context that I consider it ineffective. Just because the output is generated by effort you're already exerting does not mean this effort is being used efficiently.

Does that make sense?

Don't worry about the tone, opportunity cost is that hinterland where it is too complicated to explain to someone who doesn't get it in one sentence, but too fundamental not to need to talk about so it is very difficult to judge tone when you're not sure whether you can assume familiarity with economic concepts.

It sounds to me like we basically agree - the cost of switching search engine is ten minutes (assumption) and this pays off about 50 cents a day for forever (assumption). This makes cutting off the analysis at one year arbitrary, which I agree with. You also have to compare the effort you put into searching with anything else you could do with that time, (even if you would have been doing those searches 'naturally') for the purpose of correctly calculating opportunity cost.

I think we disagree on the final step - if this is to be ineffective you need to be able to find an activity which is a better use of my time than conducting those daily searches. Since my primary contribution to charitable causes is from my salary, and I use a lot of Google in my job (I would be fired if I didn't do internet searches because I would be totally ineffective) I can't think what else I should be doing - what is a better use of my time than doing those searches? Assume we're only interested in maximising my total charitable giving.

You're over-thinking it.

The only math needed is to decide how much benefit is lost using Goodsearch vs. whatever search engine you currently use—if it's slower, less effective relevant-stuff-finding engine, etc, then it might very well not be worth it. Maybe Goodsearch is like AOL circa 1997? Or equivalent to Asking Jeeves?

You could also—even if it's a best-in-the-market engine functionality wise—decide whatever advertising you are exposed to has some negative value, but I'd take that to be largely preferential if there was no loss of performance.

If Goodsearch is an equally valuable search tool to your current, then switch. It would be like refusing to put a Goodgarbage or Goodvaccum or Goodkitchentable in your home that promised to yield $0.01 to charity per use.

It's just a search engine. Assuming it's functionality remains equal to other leading search engines (maybe a big "if"), then it's a simple, one-time 10-minute switch in exchange for an ongoing $0.01 per search...or $XX.XX per year.

It seems to me this would be a pretty effective little fund-raising tool for a large(r) organization. Get a church congregation or school to change their search engines over to Goodsearch and fund charitable projects each year.

Unless Goodsearch is not a good search engine...

Well, if we were to approach this seriously, there a few more factors in play.

On the benefits side you need to estimate the expected length of time that this scheme will be operational. It's not just GoodSearch being around, it also them continuing to offer the same rate (and the price of generic eyeballs has been going down since as far back as I can remember and shows no signs of stopping) while providing adequate service.

You also need to figure out the appropriate discount rate since $1 in 2040 is quite different from $1 in 2014.

On the costs side you need to estimate how many additional reconfigurations you might need (browsers change, config files become corrupted, etc. etc.). Also, every time you find find a particular Bing search inadequate and need to re-search using Google, that's more time cost which could easily swamp the initial 10-minute estimate. If you believe the Bing search to be inferior to Google you should also include the opportunity costs of missing something important without realizing it.

More importantly, you need to realize what the main cost is -- it's not reconfiguration time, it's you allowing yourself to be tracked by Bing, etc. (that's what the advertisers are actually paying for). That cost is hard to estimate and probably depends on the individual, but it exists and ignoring it is unwise.

P.S. By the way, it turns out Goodsearch doesn't donate 1c/search. It donates 50% of its revenue -- that's quite a different thing.

I agree with everything you've said, but I would point out that I already allow myself to be tracked by Google, so the true cost is only the difference between the 'badness' of Google and Microsoft.