All modern operating systems — from smartphones and tablets to desktops and laptops — automatically send your local searches over the Internet and provide web results. But you can disable this, which is especially useful for protecting private searches.
For example, let’s say you’re using your operating system’s search feature to find tax documents containing your social security number. Your operating system would normally send your SSN to a remote server if you did that, but you can stop this from happening.
There are two separate “layers” of web search engines in Windows 10’s Start menu. By default, Cortana is enabled, and searches you type into the Start menu will be sent to Cortana. However, even after disabling Cortana, the Start menu will continue sending your searches to Bing and providing Bing search results. You’ll have to disable Cortana and then disable Bing search afterwards to do this.
If you like Cortana, you’ll need to rely on a different search tool to search your local files. For example, you could open a File Explorer window and use the search box there when searching for something private.
Mac OS X
Apple’s Spotlight search feature — accessible by pressing Command + Space or by clicking the search icon at the top-right corner of a Mac’s screen — also has integrated web search features. Prior to Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite, this used Google. As of OS X 10.10 Yosemite, it now uses Microsoft’s Bing. Technically, Spotlight sends searches to Apple’s servers. Apple then returns a variety of results — from Wikipedia, Apple Maps, Bing, and others.
To prevent this from happening, you’ll need to visit the Spotlight settings pane and disable Bing Web Searches and Spotlight Suggestions. If you have Xcode installed, you’ll also want to disable the Developer category that looks up developer documentation online.
iOS on iPhone and iPad
Spotlight is also present on the iOS operating system used on Apple’s iPhones and iPads. By default, it also returns web results from Bing, Apple Maps, Wikipedia, and various other servers. However, you can disable this if you like. Spotlight will then just search your iPhone or iPad’s local storage for apps, emails, calendar events, and other data without sending your search to Apple’s servers.
You’ll find this option under General > Spotlight Search in your iPhone or iPad’s Settings app. Disable both Spotlight Suggestions and Bing Web Searches.
Microosft introduced this Bing search integration back in Windows 8. Windows 8.1 will send search results to Bing when you search from the Start screen or use the system-wide Search charm to initiate a search.
To disable Windows 8.1’s Bing search integration, you’ll need to open the charms bar, select the Settings charm, and select “Change PC settings.” In the PC Settings screen, select Search & apps and disable the Bing search results and suggestions.
Windows 7 and previous versions of Windows don’t search the web when you perform a search in your Start menu.
Ubuntu was arguably the first mainstream desktop to embrace these web searches, adding Amazon product suggestions into the Dash search previously mostly used primarily for launching applications and locating files. Over the years, Ubuntu has added a variety of other web-based results to the dash, so you’ll also see weather and other information in addition to products you can buy.
Modern Ubuntu systems allow you to disable this feature. To find this option, click the gear icon at the top-right corner of the desktop and select System Settings. Click the Security & Privacy icon, click the Search tab, and disable the “Include online search results” option under “When searching in the Dash.”
We’re not aware of any other Linux distributions that include a similar feature.
This just doesn’t seem possible on Android. Older versions of Android had a search app that let you choose what to search, but modern versions of Android don’t actually contain a local search feature. Instead, they contain a Google search box that searches both the web and content on your local device. This does make it clear that your searches are being sent to Google, at least.
To search locally, you’d need to use an app that only searches a specific type of content on your phone or tablet.
Bonus: Web Browsers and URLs You Type
Modern web browsers typically include a single box that functions as both an address bar and a web search bar. Start typing into the box and the web browser will send your keystrokes to your default search engine, which provides as-you-type search suggestions. Google Chrome, Apple Safari, and MIcrosoft’s Edge and Internet Explorer all work this way.
In some cases, you may want to type direct URLs without them being sent over the web. Mozilla Firefox does this by design — by keeping the search box separate from the standard address bar, you can type addresses and they won’t be sent to your search engine as you type. Some other web browsers may also allow you to disable search suggestions.
On any of the above operating systems, you may want to keep some local searches private but benefit from the web search results at other times. If you’re searching for private files, you could just use a file-search feature — either a separate app or the file-search functionality included in the file managers built into these operating systems. These features won’t actually send your searches over the web.