Web

DuckDuckGo: An introduction to the anonymous search engine

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Google currently holds a 66.2 percent market share, followed in second place by Bing with a 15.2 percent market share, according to comScore’s search engine study. As for Google’s predecessors, they’re nowhere to be found.

Unfortunately, as a side-effect of its dominating position, Google has often succumbed to pressures from SEO “black hats” undermining the algorithm to climb up the results page ladder, by any means necessary. According to a study by Slingshot SEO, the first Google search result commands an 18.2 percent click-through rate (the rate at which a result is clicked on), while results lower on the page decrease exponentially in its chance of being clicked on. The top result wins.

Through its popularity (and omnipresence), Google has become the gatekeeper of the Web. This power has drawn critics from near and far, naysayers who deem the company of “Don’t Be Evil” a shade of exactly that. The Mountain View, California, company was recently hurled into a PR nightmare, kindled by the Wall Street Journal’s findings that showed Google had bypassed iOS’s Safari user privacy settings. Safari users took up their pitchforks and admonished Google for its seemingly profit-fueled intrusion. (Which, incidentally, Google asserts was a mistake.) And as a result, even more people are looking for somewhere else to go.

For those of you who take your privacy seriously, there’s a competitor boasting its streamlined interface, and brick-and-mortar search results. Were talking, of course, about DuckDuckGo. Some say this search engine offers a kickback to Google’s heyday, but one thing’s clear: it’s captivating the attention of early tech adopters and students of all stripes.

DuckDuckGo’s primary selling point is the comfort that users can feel while searching: your identity remains entirely anonymous. As the service’s privacy policy states, “there is no way to tie your searches together.”

In an effort to educate Internet users about privacy, DuckDuckGo’s founder, Gabriel Weinberg, has been known to create educational and informative sites, including DontTrack.us, which informs users about the potential dangers of searching with Google. In addition to advertisers and other parties building profiles about you, in order to serve targeted ads (or further damage your credit report), there’s a potentially more-serious threat to your privacy: The US government.

In the United States, from January to June 2011 alone, the government served Google 5,950 user data requests, with an astounding compliance rate of 93 percent. What’s even scarier is that Google reported an increase in data removal requests by 29%, compared to the previous data reporting period of July to December 2010. While Google itself may not knock on your door, law enforcement officials one day may. 

DuckDuckGo offers the proverbial, “breath of fresh air.” While Google’s results are chock full of biased articles that our friends have recommended on Google Plus, or direct us to websites infected with malware, Weinberg prides his creation on its four pillars of excellence: “Our four primary focuses in this regard have been aggressively ridding spam and irrelevant results, reducing clutter as much as possible, adding instant answers from great sources above links whenever more relevant, and offering real privacy,” said Weinberg in an interview with Digital Trends. In other words, DuckDuckGo’s number one priority is protecting you, the user, from the dangers of the online world.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, DuckDuckGo does host its email on Google’s servers. “I’d love to switch off of Gmail, but haven’t found a viable alternative for my use cases,” says Weinberg.)

Despite its core privacy-focused ideals, DuckDuckGo exhibits the aspiration to become a legitimate contender to Google. “We are really a mainstream product, and from feedback I can tell we have users from all over the world and from different demographics,” says Weinberg.

The growth needed to one day compete with Google is far off, and seemingly impossible. By not tracking user Web activity, targeted advertising is impossible. And in this day and age, without targeted ads, attracting advertisers is a daunting task. DuckDuckGo has made efforts to build revenue, exemplified in its partnership with Linux Mint and funding from Union Square Ventures. But to date, Weinberg hasn’t quite figured out a ground-breaking revenue model for the service. “We have some minimal advertising on the site now, and also make some money via affiliates,” he says. “We believe this is a sustainable model — though we are open to new ideas.”

Weinberg has received several offers to sell his search engine, but to date has rejected each of them, and says he has no intentions of selling.

DuckDuckGo announced that that it saw 1 million searches in one day, Feb 14, a doubling in traffic from its previous count of 500,000 searches a day, in December 2011. Admittedly, there’s significant room for growth, and the next step for DuckDuckGo is to update its algorithm for non-specific, but related, information. “Our current crawling is mainly focused on instant answers and spam detection,” says Weinberg. “We’d love to widen its scope over time and start more general crawling.”

At the end of the day, with Google (and even Bing) light-years ahead of DuckDuckGo, we couldn’t help but ask: “Why?” Weinberg quipped, “Why not?”

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