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An interview with DuckDuckGo

Posted on: Friday 19th of July 2013

DuckDuckGo is search engine with a unique selling point that it puts users’ privacy first. The Prism scandal created concern among web users as to what information companies like Google collect about them and how this data is used. In the two weeks following the NSA story, DuckDuckGo saw its web queries surge by 90% – a sign of growing consumer awareness and concern about online tracking.

DuckDuckGo does not track users and or bias results to what they think users might like to see. Instead they offer an instant answer platform, developed with partners Wolfram Alpha, and put the best source for answers at the top.

We spoke to the team at DuckDuckGo to find out more about what they’re doing and what this means for the changing Personal Data landscape.

1. What’s the big benefit your service is designed to offer?

You can switch search engines to DuckDuckGo today and get both great results and great privacy. We focus on an overall better overall search experience with more instant answers, less clutter and real privacy.

On privacy, when you search on DuckDuckGo you are truly anonymous. Our privacy policy is easily readable and explains how this works and why you should care.

On results, we believe that for most searches there is a site out there that already has a great answer for you, e.g. IMDB for movies or Yelp for restaurants. We try to get that information from that best source and put it above the traditional links so you can get instant answers when possible. We’ve even made that platform open-source, so anyone in the world can create instant answers for DuckDuckGo’s results.

2. What inspired/motivated you to start doing this?

Gabriel Weinberg started DuckDuckGo in 2008 with the idea of building a better search engine with more instant answers. The idea was that people were more and more going directly to sites like Wikipedia, IMDB, etc, and if you could bring back those answers and show them above the links, you’d have a more compelling search experience.

Upon launching, Gabriel investigated search privacy after getting questions from the new users and discovered a couple of things. First, people turn to search engines (often first) with their personal problems, and as a result search histories are the most personal data sets on the Internet. Second, this personal data was getting increasingly handed over to marketers and lawyers/law enforcement. Since you don’t need to track people to make money in Web search or make good results, Gabriel decided to just not track people as a component in an overall better search experience.

Not tracking people is a critical part of a better search experience, but it fundamentally, isn’t that technically hard to do. Day in and day out we are focused on making better search results with instant-answers and less clutter. We believe that people will only switch to private alternatives if they get great results too, i.e. with little or no sacrifice. That’s why we’re so focused on producing a better overall search experience.

3. How big is the market opportunity for your service?

We think our core value proposition of great results and great privacy resonates with a significant percentage of people, and our plan is to keep delivering that experience.

4. What is the business model? How do you/will you earn your keep?

It is a myth that search engines needs to track you to make money on Web search. When you type in a search, we can show an ad just based on that search term. For example, if you type in car we show a car ad. That doesn’t involve tracking because it is based on the keyword and not the person. We currently show just one ad though as opposed to the many (sometimes 10-15) you’ll find on other search engines.

5. Where would you like to be in 3-5 years time?

Our next milestone is to hit 1% of the search market share. We are about halfway towards that goal.

6. What obstacles will you need to overcome to get there?

We think that people generally do not want to be tracked and if they have choices to switch to private alternatives where they can get both a great experience and great privacy then they will make the switch.

Our biggest challenge is simply getting the word out.

7. Have you got any more general thoughts or views about the changing personal data landscape you would like to share?

The technology of tracking is way more embedded in our lives than it was just a few years ago and is only increasing, both online (the rise of data scientists) and offline (drones, cameras, etc.). It is a false conclusion, however, that the existance of this technology necessitates that privacy is dead. We do not have to live in Orwell’s 1984. To not have that future we just need to demand effective choices where there is more of an explicit quid pro quo where we are giving up this privacy for this explicit benefit. That world is different from the current status quo of store everything in hope we can use it later.