The Growth of DuckDuckGo, the privacy focused search engine

The UK’s Information Commission Officer, Elizabeth Denham, recently revealed that she doesn’t have a Facebook or WhatsApp account and uses Signal as her messaging app. Technology users with similar instincts towards protecting their data have adopted a search engine that calls out respect for privacy in its brand values.

DuckDuckGo is a search engine which doesn’t track you. They are taking on Google by highlighting this difference and using it as a competitive advantage.

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DuckDuckGo (DDG) gained 62m new users in 2020, and passed through 100m daily search queries for the first time in January 2021. The WhatsApp story has seen more new users arrive at DDG as people seek to protect what privacy they feel they have left to defend. In fact they have overtaken Yahoo to become the second most used search engine on mobiles in the US – and are finding new users across the world.

The thing that new users find so refreshing is that each new search is a “blank piece of paper”, as DDG doesn’t build a user profile from your previous searches or know anything about you. They still serve up popular search results against the terms you search on, but those results are not skewed by anything they know about you. It is indeed a strange, almost child-like, moment of innocence to feel like you are not being watched or tracked. That promise of anonymity is the key to their growth.

A reminder of the Google model

Google’s search engine usage began to explode in 2000 when it was used by Yahoo which was the world’s most popular website back then. Google was proud of their motto: “Don’t be evil”.  They offered that clean white screen that reassured users that they would give you exactly what you wanted faster than anyone else.  They were your friend and on your side.

Their journey to becoming number one today sees them serve the most users, with the most pages from the most searches using the smartest technology.  They have made a lot of money from selling a lot of advertising along the way.  They invented whole new markets so that businesses would have to pay to appear as the number one advertised choice when someone typed “Skiing in France”.  This would sit alongside the search result which calculated the best and most relevant website to serve to the original question, but we often just click the first thing we see and that was the game that Google won.

However, along the way, data privacy and anonymity was compromised in the dash to provide ever more personal and relevant content to you.  Google is still a free service to use but the cost to the individual is being part of the ecosystem that means you see adverts that are targeted at you and your likes – as if Google knows you personally.  They do that by tracking all your activity within Google (Maps, YouTube, Android, Gmail as well as Search).

DDG is competing with Google by not tracking you and also being free to use.  Each time you start a DDG search you start from scratch.  They don’t know anything about you personally because they don’t consider any previous searches you have made or websites you have visited.  They don’t deliver you personalised search results and they don’t sell personalised advertising because they intentionally don’t want to know you that well. Some people find it too hard to live without that tailored Google experience, while others find it liberating.  If DDG were hacked by a criminal gang or a foreign government, there wouldn’t be any data on you for them to steal because DDG don’t store any data on you.

DDG make money and are profitable.  In some ways they are “old fashioned”.  If you type “Skiing in France” you get back the best results for popular websites providing that content.  They also show adverts based on Skiing in France – but none of those adverts are based on you.  You are anonymous.

As they point out in their blog manifesto (well worth a read and likely to have been written by their founder Gabriel Weinberg), for Google and Facebook….

“It is a choice to squeeze every last ounce of profit at the expense of privacy, democracy and society. A choice they don’t have to make. Without all this tracking, I’m confident they would still be among the most profitable companies in the world, and we’d all be better off”.

That tracking of you across the internet is alarming:

“Google now deploys hidden trackers on 76% of websites across the web to monitor your behaviour and Facebook has hidden trackers on about 25% of websites”, according to the Princeton Web Transparency & Accountability Project.

 

It's not just DuckDuckGo

There are other search engines competing against Google.

Swisscows is worth a look.  They also don’t track users and offer “family friendly” search results to accompany the very Swiss promise to be an

“efficient alternative for anyone who attaches great importance to data integrity and the protection of privacy…users at Swisscows don’t leave any tracks”

 

 

Think about changing web browser

The battle described above is all about the search engine you use to answer the questions you ask on the internet.  The browser you use is what provides you access to the internet.

We don’t want to report on all the technicalities of speed, performance and search relevance but we do want you to know that Google’s Chrome browser dominates the market and provides a window into all your search history for them to feed even more of your personal data into their algorithm and money making machine.

You should take a look and play around with two significant competitors in this space Brave and Firefox.  They both have apps you can download to your mobile and start browsing today. Just see how it feels to be living your digital life outside the Google empire.

Last but not least, we want to direct you towards a short report by the BBC technology reporter, Zoe Kleinmann.  It is a video diary of a day spent unwittingly sharing data with the big data companies and will get you thinking about how much of this we all do without thinking of the consequences.

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