Whether by accident or design, Startpage’s decision to launch its “world’s #1 privacy search engine” in Australia this week is fortuitous timing, what with privacy concerns over Google and Facebook in the news.

Startpage, which began life as Ixquick, is based in New York and the privacy-conscious Netherlands and owned by Dutch private company Surfboard Holding BV. Its unique selling proposition, as marketers would say, is simple. They don’t record your searches. They don’t record your internet protocol (IP) address. They don’t use cookies to identify you — they only use “anonymous” cookies to remember your search preferences between visits. They don’t share data with third parties unless they get a court order or subpoena.

“Startpage’s privacy practices have been awarded the highest possible rating by EuroPriSe, the European [privacy seal] certifying authority,” claims Startpage’s  media release.

This is in stark contrast to most major search engines, which generally record and dissect nearly every bit of personal information they can discover. On the surface, that’s all about improving search results, tailoring them to your needs. More importantly for the search engines, it’s about providing better targeting information to advertisers — and that’s what pays the bills.

Google, for example, continues to track your usage of their search engine — and of all their other products — even when you’re not logged in by using tracking cookies containing a unique identifier. Unless you take precautions such as configuring your web browser to block their cookies, though few people get around to doing that.

So who’s paying for Startpage?

“Startpage is a privately held company, so we do not report financial information,” says their backgrounder. “We can report that we are fiscally sound and have been profitable for the last five years … Some result pages show relevant sponsored results.”

Certainly Startpage doesn’t need a huge infrastructure.

Despite calling itself “popular”, Startpage isn’t in Nielsen’s  top 10 US search sites, which means it’d have less than 0.3% of the search market share. In Alexa’s list of top websites they’re at number 14,956 globally, well below most mid-ranking commercial websites. This traffic level doesn’t cost much to serve.

They’re also a “metasearch engine”, which means they don’t create their own index of websites. Instead, your search on Startpage is referred anonymously to other search engines — including Bing, Yahoo, Lycos and AltaVista, but not Google — and they just compile the results. Again, this means minimal infrastructure of their own.

Ixquick claims to have served “over 1.2 billion searches” since they began. That sounds impressive, but it works out at just a dozen or two searches per second. That’s achievable with a single entry-level web server.

By comparison, Google handles about 3 billion searches per day. Google’s such a household name that it’s become a verb, and few seem truly concerned about the privacy problems.

“Startpage vice-president of marketing and media relations, privacy expert Dr Katherine Albrecht, will visit Australia from for nine days from today to meet with Australian privacy advocates and speak with government officials,” their media release says. Whether said government officials will be interested in speaking with such a niche player, however, remains to be seen.