The websites that you and I visit each day make up just a tiny portion of the internet: The “surface web”, which is that part of the World Wide Web that’s visible to all of us and searchable via the usual search engines. Beneath this lurks the online content that’s beyond the reach of standard search engines: The dark web. Read on as we shine a spotlight on dark web search engines. Above all, wherever you browse, make sure you’re prepared for hackers and online threats with a suite of powerful, comprehensive security and online privacy software from Avira.
Please note: We don’t recommend a ride on these online submarines. This blog is purely for educational purposes and to make interested readers like you more aware of the dangers. Be like a snorkeler and stay at the web surface: It’s safer and more likely to be legal.
The web “iceberg” has three layers: Surface, dark, and deep web
It’s easiest to visualize the web as an iceberg. Most of us spend our time online bobbing around at the “top” of the web. This is called the “surface” or “open” web and it’s where we can engage with various online services, including e-commerce sites, news sites, blogs, personal websites, and social media. The online content that is easily visible to us and the search engines we use, forms the tip of the web iceberg. Below this virtual water line comes the online content that is non-indexed and can’t be accessed via standard search engines. Users usually need a direct URL and password to gain access to this “deep web”, where you’ll find security-protected pages like login and payment portals. Paid services like online magazines and video-on-demand are also found here. Swim even deeper and you’ll reach a subset of the deep web that’s called the “dark web”. This midnight zone is overlaid with darknets to keep it hidden so it’s only accessible via specific software or hardware.
Is all activity here illegal? While the dark internet is often portrayed as a digital playground for criminals and anarchists, that’s not always the case. It’s designed to be an anonymous, safe, and private space for journalists and anyone trying to escape censorship and surveillance. It achieves this by encrypting communications and routing online content through multiple web servers. Those who visit the dark web usually consider the Tor Browser the best anonymous web browser. The name stands for “The Onion Router” because of its multi-layered encryption—your traffic is relayed and encrypted three times as it passes over the Tor network! Tor describes its mission on its website (status: 14.03.2023): “We believe everyone should be able to explore the internet with privacy. We are the Tor Project, a 501(c)(3) US nonprofit. We advance human rights and defend your privacy online through free software and open networks”.
Cybercriminals abuse these noble intentions though. They gather on the dark net to buy and sell credit card numbers, weapons, drugs, counterfeit money, stolen online account credentials, malware, and more. You can even hire hackers to launch virtual attacks for you! (Please don’t do any of these things). Not everyone on the dark web is a cybercriminal or a dissident on the run from a murderous regime. Some visitors simply enjoy the anonymity and might just join an online chess club there or Blackbook, the social networking site exclusively for the dark web. If you try clicking on these links, you’ll get an error message that the site is inaccessible. The dark web can only be reached via a dark web search engine.
If you want to read up more on the dark side of the dark web, including how it all started, see this blog post: The darknet — truly the dark side of the internet?
How visitors access the dark web—without the Tor browser (not recommended!)
The most well-known method of accessing the dark web is through the Tor browser. You can quickly recognize dark websites on Tor as they all have .onion attached at the end of the URL and can only be reached via the Tor browser. Can you access a website with the .onion domain name through a regular browser like Google Chrome? Yes, with a little help from Tor2Web—a service that allows users access to Onion sites via a regular browser. These websites have domain names that end in onion.ly. Beware! It’s usually ransomware groups that use onion.ly links because when a victim’s device is infected with ransomware, they are directed to a dark website that contains the ransom demand. The victim can access this onion.ly website with their regular browser.
What are the top dark web search engines?
There is a range of (legal) dark web browsers and deep web search engines.
- Torch: The name is a blend of “Tor” and “search”. This Tor search engine is the oldest on the Tor network and claims to offer speedy, unfiltered, and uncensored web search results. It’s considered one of the most popular darknet searches and is renowned for having the largest onion indexing database.
- Onion Search: Specifically designed for the Tor Browser, this can also be used on the surface web. The pages are unfiltered, but users get to report illegal and unethical content. Users add it as an extension to their Chrome browser if they want to carry out both regular and dark web searches.
- Not Evil: Often considered the best Tor search engine for beginners, its simple search box grants access to a list of results from over 32 million websites on the Tor network. Not Evil doesn’t contain ads and never tracks web traffic.
- DuckDuckGo: This promises to block trackers, encrypt sites and helps anonymize searches. Plus, DuckDuckGo won’t track users’ online activities. It’s available as a Chrome extension or directly at duckduckgo.com. There’s also a privacy browser app for iOS and Android mobiles.
- Startpage: This boldly claims to be “the world’s most private search engine” and promises to never save or sell customers’ search history. It has a simple user-friendly interface in a Google-like format.
- Deep Search: This open-source web crawler was created by a group of students and is easy-to-use and ad-free. It filters illegal content and displays a long list of online marketplaces and exchanges.
- Ahmia: Popular amongst beginners, Ahmia is a search engine from Finland that’s compatible with Tor. It filters out search results in the Tor browser to weed out unsafe or fake websites. Ahmia also allows users to conduct deep web searches in regular web browsers, like Google Chrome.
- Haystak: With more than 1.5 billion pages and over 260,000 websites, this Tor-based search engine claims to offer more indexed sites than any other deep web search engine. Haystak is fast, doesn’t track data, and the premium version is ad free.
- Candle: This dark web search engine allows users to search for content using keywords, but not characters like quotation marks. The user interface is minimalistic.
- Recon: A popular choice for online shopping fans. This website covers active marketplaces and thousands of online vendors. Users can also cross-reference vendor details. The interface includes ad banners and listing promotions.
- Kilos: Founded in 2019 as an evolution of the now defunct Grams, this new dark web search engine is quickly gaining popularity and tipping the scales in its favor. Designed for buyers, it includes forums and black markets in its listings and promises to go where Google doesn’t. Is this the new heavyweight on the search engine block? Experts think it may be.
There are also useful online directories that aren’t search engines but help organize dark web content so it’s easier to navigate. The Hidden Wiki is the Onion version of Wikipedia and contains deep web search engine links to a variety of websites. They’re not all safe, so anyone considering a visit is advised to proceed with caution!
Dangers of the dark web
It’s a safer haven for those being persecuted, those wanting to exercise their right to free speech, or anyone wanting to be more anonymous online. Yet there’s no denying that the dark web is also a magnet for cybercriminals. You’re entering the dark waters of their world where browsing isn’t risk-free. The dark web is littered with infected websites so you may end up the victim of malware that records keystrokes or steals your sensitive data. Some sites have illegal and highly unsettling content, like live-streamed murders. Plus, you could encounter formidable digital adversaries who laugh in the face of your malware defenses! Law enforcement authorities regularly take down illegal sites and reveal the identities of site visitors. Don’t associate with criminals. In some countries, you can attract the attention of authorities simply by using a browser like Tor! Our best advice to anyone considering browsing the dark web is: Don’t!
Security on the dark web
If you really do choose to visit the dark web, and have legitimate and legal reasons for doing so, it’s advisable to follow these security tips. Please remember that it’s not illegal to enter the dark web, but you browse there at your own risk and it’s your responsibility to abide by the law.
- Choose a secure browser like Tor. Be sure to install it only from the official website.
- Always use a VPN like Avira Phantom VPN when connecting to the internet. That way, your data is encrypted before it reaches your internet service provider (ISP), so you can surf more anonymously. Quality VPN providers offer various security features such as bank-grade data encryption, DNS leak protection, plus a kill switch to end your session should your internet connection drop.
- Consider using a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin when making online purchases.
- Cover your webcam and close all apps on your device (e.g.: banking apps).
And don’t forget that the usual online safety tips apply wherever you surf! Play it safer by never clicking on suspicious links or you may end up on a website infected with malware. Also be extremely cautious when downloading files. Before you open files disconnect your device from the internet. This can help keep you and your data safer from malicious attachments that need an internet connection to wreak havoc.
It’s also always worth considering a multi-pronged solution that blends multiple features, like Avira Prime. This subscription service helps block even zero-day online threats and automatically updates software. The integrated Password Manager Pro even alerts you if your data is leaked on the dark web. Sorry hackers!
It may be enticing to probe a world beyond the reach of Google. Even if you have good intentions, it’s easy to stray off the beaten path in the dark web and stumble onto illegal sites and materials. It’s safest not to go there at all.