Meet Gabriel Weinberg, the man taking on Google and Bing

In 1998, two college friends decided to build a method of analysing every website on the Internet to find the most relevant information when a user put in a small amount of text. Their names were Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and they had just founded Google. From humble beginnings, Google has grown to dominate over 70% of the search engine market, 60% of the smartphone operating system market and has made billions and billions of dollars in the process. Google is, to some, "the Internet"; the place where you start your Internet experience. And, up until now, no-one has come close to toppling them. 

Step forward Gabriel Weinberg. Back in 2006, Weinberg sold "The Names Database" to Classmates.com for around $10 million. At the time, Weinberg was in his 20s, married and had cash to spare and nothing to do with it, until he thought of DuckDuckGo. Some of you may not have heard of DuckDuckGo, as it operates quietly with very little advertisement. But DuckDuckGo is the most significant thing to happen to the search world since Page and Brin founded Google back in 1998. 

While DuckDuckGo is definitely not on the scale of Bing or Google, the small, mostly self-funded startup is growing at an impressive rate. In April 2010, DuckDuckGo was receiving around 1.18 million "direct" user searches per month. Now, in April 2013, just three years later, the search engine is experiencing almost 50 million searches per month (an average of 1.6 million per day). The growth can be seen on the chart below, found on DuckDuckGo's website

But what sets DuckDuckGo apart from Bing or Google? According to Weinberg, it's simple: Privacy. DuckDuckGo promises to never track a user's clicks, or use previous searchers to aid current results. They describe the practise of targeting results based on past searches as placing a user in a "bubble," where everything is controlled based on what you want to see (e.g. if you visit Fox News frequently, results for Fox News will rank higher than those for MSNBC). Weinberg described to me the "natural conflict" between Google's business model and their user's privacy: if Google can collect information on a user, their ads can be targeted more efficiently meaning a higher click-through rate. Weinberg told me that ad relevancy was based "on the search term typed" rather than previously searched terms. If a user types in "car" an ad for a car is the most appropriate thing to show. 

Recently, Google have been attracting a lot of bad press over their invasions of privacy. People are waking up to the fact that Google can work out where they are, what they like and who their friends are, as well as a myriad of other things based on information from Android and other Google services. Weinberg said that DuckDuckGo have been mentioned in many articles about Google's dodgy privacy practices, which can only be a good thing. According to Weinberg, many "people have tried [DuckDuckGo] out for privacy reasons," but most stay because of the "superior search experience."

When users visit the DuckDuckGo homepage, they're greeted with a similar experience to Google (especially in the early days). The logo sits atop a rectangular search box with a green "Go" button next to that. There is no visual flair, like Bing, or black bar atop the screen, like Google. Weinberg told me that the point of DuckDuckGo is to deliver "best search experience possible" which "means much less spam/clutter" and "way more useful instant answers." The "useful instant answers" are helped along by DuckDuckGo's partnerships with Wolfram Alpha and various other services through short codes, such as "!wolfram" and "!gawker" (to search for a specific piece of content on Gawker). Google does offer a similar service, but it is no where near as easy and accessible as DuckDuckGo. Weinberg is also working on an app for iOS and Android, which will be available soon (something the team is "very excited about"). 

DuckDuckGo are also looking to expand DuckDuckHack, where developers can build onto DuckDuckGo. As Weinberg put it: "Any developer can create an instant answer on DuckDuckGo via DuckDuckHack.com. Think of them as add-ons for Firefox or other browsers that everyone sees!" 

Of course, DuckDuckGo isn't perfect. They lack the image search ability that is present in both Google and Bing, as well as the lack of native maps search. I explained to Weinberg that these were features that I use regularly on Google, and he assured me that the team are looking to build them in "this year." However, Google is a company that has grown and developed over 15 years; DuckDuckGo is only a third of that and still has space to grow. So far, Weinberg has accepted $3 million in outside investment, as well as bankrolling the project himself. The most notable investment firm is Union Square Ventures, who invested an unknown amount of money, and described DuckDuckGo as "young and under staffed," but said that DuckDuckGo is an "interesting alternative" to Google. For comparison, Google took over $25 million in funding to get where they are today. 

Another place where DuckDuckGo falls behind Google is in-site search. Large sites, like The Telegraph here in the UK, use Google search to index their own sites. Weinberg told me that site search is an area that "we haven't focused much on," but several notable sites have signed up, including Daring Fireball and Bruce Schneier, a "renowned security technologist." Weinberg told me that sites are making the switch because they "care about their user privacy and not sharing personal data with Google."

When I asked Weinberg about the success of Google, and whether DuckDuckGo could ever replicate that, he said: 

Google is synonymous with search and therefore it is difficult to compete with them. In addition they have strong moats via Chrome, Android and iOS (where Google is the default most of the time). Bing has done quite well under those circumstances, with about 25% of the search market share (depending on how you count).

Many users are beginning to care about their privacy and personal data which is why users will try DuckDuckGo. Here are a couple of examples:
1) Pew Report: 65% View Personalized Search As Bad; 73% See It As Privacy Invasion 
2) More than two-thirds of the Internet population across 11 countries say they would block the collection of their personal data

Ultimately though, the reason we think we'll be different and that users will stick around is the superior search experience via instant answers and less spam/clutter.

He did tell me that "Duck it" would be the replacement phrase for "Google it," which has now become a verb

In terms of advertising, DuckDuckGo hasn't gone mad. Their most famous stunt was a billboard in San Francisco that said: "Google tracks you. We don't." A Google spokesperson replied that it was "unfortunate" that DuckDuckGo was "spreading" false information to "garner attention." The stunt worked, as the billboard has become infamous - and only cost Weinberg $7000 for four weeks. 

Image via Wired

DuckDuckGo also advertises on Reddit, which has been very successful. In a blog post, Weinberg described the adverts success, saying that the Reddit advert boosted the profile of the site, especially amongst those who are privacy conscious and are willing to give another search engine a try. Weinberg said in the blog post that "people are still mentioning the ad to me." The Reddit experiment only cost $650, but has raised the profile of the site enormously in a key area. DuckDuckGo also advertised on 4chan.org, the home of all things crazy on the Internet. When asked why he chose 4chan, Weinberg replied: 

We've done ads on reddit quite successfully for a long time. We thought the 4chan community is similar in many ways to the reddit community, and would be interested in our privacy policy.

Google and Microsoft have the money to run adverts on TV and in cinemas (two of the most effective advertising mediums), a luxury DuckDuckGo does not have. According to Weinberg, DuckDuckGo is open to ideas to attract more users to the search engine. Google grew through word of mouth, while Bing grew because Microsoft poured so much money into advertising it (and made it the default search engine on Internet Explorer). Weinberg said he was open too suggestions from anyone, and can be contacted here

In terms of future plans, Weinberg would like to reach a 1% marketshare in the search space within the next five years. Bing, which was launched in 2009, has amassed a 25% marketshare, mainly due to Microsoft's deep, deep pockets; Google leads the pack with a 70% global marketshare. 1% may not seem like a lot, but would be a fantastic achievement for a company with a small budget and a small engineering team (Google currently employ over 30,00, DuckDuckGo have a team of under 10 people).

In terms of revenue, Weinberg was reported to have pegged DuckDuckGo's revenue at $115,000 on roughly 99.3 million searches in 2011. So far in 2013, DuckDuckGo have handled 146 million searches, generating them around $170,000 in revenue (based on 2011's revenue per search figure). In the first quarter of 2013, Google is expected to make $2.4 billion in revenue.

While DuckDuckGo is certainly not as big as Google, they have a large opportunity to grow and expand, delivering safe, fair and unrecorded results to anyone.

Images via DuckDuckGo 

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So wait, the guy who built a social network whose core feature was pushing new users to sign over their friends' names and email addresses without their consent (which would then be accessible to everyone else on that social network), and then sold all of those names and email addresses to the most scammy and useless "social network" in the history of the internet for millions of dollars, is now lecturing Google and Microsoft about privacy?

That is remarkable chutzpah.

Interesting. I will give it a shot and see how it is.
How can I be sure that they 'aren't tracking me' though ?

I will give it a shot, but already noticed that it doesn't have a shopping/price finder so that is a major downside for me

snuffy said,
and there's me thinking bing was a bad name...

But I like "Just Duck It" as a better slogan over "Just Google It"

The main benefit and function of a search engine is to prioritize and rank results into a useful list of answers to a query. DDG claims to return "fair" results, but how are those results ranked? If they're not, then I question the engine's usefulness. If they are, how are they ranking them? They have to be tracking SOMETHING in order to rank them.

Yes, I realize what bubblized searches are, but I'm wondering what DDG is doing to rank their searches if they claim they don't track anything. And if they're NOT ranking their searches, then it's basically useless because of the amount of junk on the internet.

DuckDuckGo don't release their algorithm in the same way Google doesn't release PageRank. I trust DDG more than Google or Bing, but I'm not everyone.

maxslaterrobins said,
DuckDuckGo don't release their algorithm in the same way Google doesn't release PageRank. I trust DDG more than Google or Bing, but I'm not everyone.

Google stuck to their ideals and was thrust worthy when still a small company too

I remember first seeing and using this on a Linux distro (it was set as the default search engine in Chrome/Firefox at the time).

Edit: Just tried it again. I'm impressed! I think it's better than Google in terms of finding specific content (ie. service manuals for older hardware). Will add DDG to Firefox search engines list.

Edited by 68k, Apr 2 2013, 1:00pm :

Sorry. Even as a DuckDuckGo user myself, the features are great and all but nothing compares to Google when you want legitimate results for your searches and that's a fact.

I'm constantly using the !g bang for more complex searches and use DDG mostly for basic searches like finding the correct domain for a certain site or sports stats.

DDG is just nothing special if you want relevant search results.

singularity87 said,
Indeed. I use Microsoft Online Services for Outlook.com and Office 365 along with IE10. But I still use Google, not even Bing, for search.

Somehow any other search engine is horrible compared to Google, especially on Europe's main land we have absolutely no alternative.
The advantages Google search give over its 'datamining' is still enough to favor Google search. I do try bing every once in a while, IE10's default search engine is still Bing. And I prefer bing maps over google maps. but searching for maps on Bing gives me google maps lol.
Gmaps has more relavant info for my country tho, but bing maps is much smoother and less resourcehogging. (and the pictures are more recent, Google's are 4-6 years old in my area, Bing's are ~2 years old.

yes! that alone is enough to have this take over.

Don't know something? Duck it!
Curious about your ancestry? Go Duck yourself!
etc, etc....

It does and there are some advantages to that. It also helps Google, or they wouldn't do it.

An example of this is that compared to the average person I do a lot of technology and movie-related searches. As a result when I search words or phrases with lots of other meanings, Google will prioritise giving me results related to those topics. Most of the time those are the ones I want. If I want to be jolted to discovering something new it might not be so good.

The thing is that there are also plenty of good reasons people might not want a company tracking them and targeting their search results. So surely it can only be a good thing that people have access to an alternative that provides that.

nik louch said,
Google tracks you. Which in turn betters the results. Good guy Google!

Some people are okay with Google knowing what they like/search for, others aren't. DuckDuckGo is an option for those who aren't, and isn't for everyone

-adrian- said,
Sorry to disappoint you - there is no good guy in the business world

Yes there are. Ofc businesses focus on money and wealth. But its the way achieve this that makes it a good or bad company. Unfortunally the bad ones outshadow the good ones by way to much.
Currently my personal view of the 3 giants (apple, google, ms) MS is currently closest to being the good guy. Altho that's a business tactic to keep a dominant place in the market. Hopefully they stick on their current path if they drift off i'll have to find new providers for my services again

"Good guy Google!"

Or as we said here in China when Google spat the dummy and ran away, "Goodbye Google!"

They've screwed the pooch in the world's biggest market and their future does not look good.

I've used it a few times.. But I don't see why it matters that google tacks you.. they do it to help their search engine and get you better results.. do they sell that information? Maybe.. I know some others care, but something like this.. sure.. why not.. if someone wants to know what weird sex fetishes I like.. more power to them.. KIDDING I don't like big brother in my business, and I can see this being in my business, but it doesn't bother me for some reason.. I wish DuckDuckGo good luck

It matters... "Tracking is bad, privacy is good". How many times you read this in the past? See the text " 65% View Personalized Search As Bad; 73% See It As Privacy Invasion" If this is really that kind of bad is not the question, it's a question of advertisement, in my opinion.

For some reason it does not really bother me.. I can see how it would bother others.. but if it bothers them.. use something else.. Google provides me great results that I prefer over the other search engines. Google does not charge anything for their service so if they want to log what I search.. go for it..

The tracking of your search queries and all is fine. Since that's done by your own manual input.
But Google scanning my mails for their ads... no way.
Or my contact list or my doings on my phone for their ads... no friggin way.
There's a limit. Anything I give for input they are free to use since i'm giving it by choice. They are however taking my information without giving me an explicit choice (yes by not using their services, thus I wont). And that's what bugs me most of all. Use it and surrender your privacy to Google, or not use it. No way in between.

Fus10n said,
I've used it a few times.. But I don't see why it matters that google tacks you.. they do it to help their search engine and get you better results.. do they sell that information? Maybe.. I know some others care, but something like this.. sure.. why not.. if someone wants to know what weird sex fetishes I like.. more power to them.. KIDDING I don't like big brother in my business, and I can see this being in my business, but it doesn't bother me for some reason.. I wish DuckDuckGo good luck

There are two reasons; you (and I) don't care for the first, which is privacy concerns and general paranoia.

The other reason is the artificial filter bubble. As mentioned by Gabriel, with Google the more you search the more results are tailored to you, the more your future results will be influenced by your past searches. In essence equally relevant results but with opposing viewpoints or alternate information to that which you usually click through to will show further down the page making it harder for you to find.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Filt...ized-Changing/dp/0143121235

I care about it because of the bubble. Google "knows" what you like, so it shows you more of it; before long, you live in a bubble where you only ever find what Google thinks you like.

Google is only going to get more like this because that's best for its advertising revenue.

This is going to be a process that is as unavoidable as the tabloidization of TV and newspaper. It's a direct result of Google's business model so unless the business model changes that is not going to change.

That's my general view of Google too - great technology put to a bad use.