Finding out that you are being spied upon without your knowledge is never a good feeling and no one likes it less than Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of DuckDuckGo, a search engine aimed at keeping a user’s privacy at all costs.
Gabriel Weinberg founded the company in 2008 and has become one of the most vocal critics of Google, a company he sees as invading the privacy of its users without consent or reason to do so.
“The issue with Google is they run four of the biggest ad networks in the world and only one is search related,” he said. “The rest are on millions of sites and apps across the Internet and they use tracking to do better at ads on these third-party sites,” but then use this data for search, something Weinberg sees as a central conflict and one of the reasons that DuckDuckGo is better: the company serves ads based on individual searches — e.g. “car” — not on whether you searched for “hotels in Paris” three months ago.
Weinberg’s personal story is interesting and explains why many people trust DuckDuckGo with their data. In 2006, Weinberg sold The Names Database, a way to reconnect with old friends, to Classmates.com for $US10 million (£6.4 million) in cash and began searching for a new project. Having looked around, Weinberg saw that Google was tracking users largely without their consent and resolved to set up DuckDuckGo as a way to search the Web without being tracked.
All of this was years before privacy became a hot-button issue and people became aware that the NSA was tracking the internet via programs such as PRISM, which collected meta-data as well as other records of your online activity, collaborating with Google, among others.
More and more people have become concerned about internet surveillance since DuckDuckGo launched in 2008
A Pew Research poll that Weinberg showed us says that “40% [of Americans] think that their search engine provider shouldn’t retain information about their activity,” a number that was likely closer to zero just a few years ago.
Since the NSA revelations, direct searches on DuckDuckGo have increased 600% and Weinberg says that the company is on track to do 3 billion searches this year. “We’re in great shape,” he said.
DuckDuckGo has seen its fortunes boosted by partnerships with Apple and Mozilla, two companies that have had tricky relations with Google and care about the privacy of users. “We’re thrilled to be part of Safari [and] Firefox,” Weinberg says. “Among the big companies, Apple [and] Mozilla are leading the charge on privacy and making it a priority for their users. We’re a natural fit in that context.”
One of Weinberg’s main concerns about DuckDuckGo is that “most people have not heard of us,” so they simply stick with Google. “[I]f most people knew you could get great search and great privacy at the same time, a significant percentage would make the switch.” The partnerships with other companies have aided this name recognition and are helping DuckDuckGo spread the message to more people, many of whom likely had no idea that the reason web ads followed them around is because they are being tracked.
Weinberg also sees a fundamental change in how people use search engines — a change that DuckDuckGo is preparing for. “We believe the future of search is more instant answers,” he tells me. Instant Answers are effectively the result within the search that removes the need to click through multiple pages. When you search for “2+2” on DuckDuckGo the answer is presented right there as the top result. There is still a way to go, however. “[T]he technology is not yet good enough to deliver [Instant Answers] for most searches [and so] that’s the problem we’re focused on,” Weinberg says.
Instant Answers links back to the core idea of focus: as Weinberg sees it, the company has “done” privacy — no one ever gets tracked when searching — and now it is moving onto providing answers quickly and simply, making a more compelling user experience in the process.
Despite having almost 500 Instant Answers plug-ins, the company is on the search for more and is hosting a “Quack and Hack” event that’s open to anyone who wants to help make DuckDuckGo better. Interestingly, this links in well with an ethos that Weinberg has about corporate culture. “We’ve always held the view that communities don’t need to operate in a physical space to work well together” which applies to DuckDuckGo employees, many of whom work remotely. As such, the event is open to anyone with an Internet connection and will operate predominantly via Slack, a multi-person messaging app.
Beyond Instant Answers, Weinberg wouldn’t give specifics about where DuckDuckGo is headed. Broadly, however, the company is aiming to increase its name recognition, promoting a search experience that doesn’t invade the user’s privacy.
When I spoke to Weinberg before, he talked a lot about “filter bubbles,” another area that he fundamentally disagrees with Google on. If, for example, you’ve searched for “The Telegraph” or “Fox News” in the past then the kind of results you receive in the future will be dictated by this rather than being a genuine page of results for the topic. This helps Google target ads more effectively but doesn’t deliver the best results for each individual search, a point Weinberg was keen to stress.
DuckDuckGo is coming up to seven-years-old and is in pretty good shape in terms of traffic. The company wouldn’t disclose financial information, but it is a lean business — Weinberg says it employs just 35 people — with a large amount of traffic and plenty of potential to grow. While it’s unlikely that Google is ever going to offer it a spot as the default search client on Android, there are still partnerships to be struck, features to be added and users to be attracted. Increasingly, DuckDuckGo is looking more and more like a real competitor to Google — and it doesn’t even know what you’ve searched for.