The Crunch: With stories of security breaches, hackers, and compromised Social Security numbers dominating the news, internet users are more anxious about preserving digital privacy and safety than ever before. And they have also become wary of search information being tracked for purposes that go beyond providing them with the best answer. DuckDuckGo, a search engine that made a name for itself by building privacy into its business model, promises anonymity by refusing to collect data or information from user searches. That approach has helped the company stand out among monolithic competitors, and it has also contributed to DuckDuckGo’s rapid growth since its launch in 2008.
In recent years, consumers have experienced a collective and mounting anxiety surrounding issues of privacy and security, particularly online. Almost weekly, another story surfaces regarding information hacks or identity theft — some minor, others devastating.
It’s not surprising that the Pew Research Institute found 68% of internet users believe that current laws fail to protect their online information adequately. Moreover, 50% of those surveyed also said they had deep-seated concerns about how much of their information was available online — a massive jump from the 33% who voiced those concerns just a few years prior. Individuals worry about their ability to keep their private information private.
In 2008, Gabriel Weinberg launched a search engine called DuckDuckGo that would eventually change the expectation of privacy during online searches. But Gabriel’s first goal was to become a direct competitor of Google by providing better, more accurate answers to search engine queries.
It’s a David-versus-Goliath story, to say the least, but it’s more than pertinent answers that has made Gabriel’s site successful. Unlike other search engines that track and store a user’s information for various business and analytics purposes, DuckDuckGo prides itself on being “the search engine that doesn’t track you.”
A startup built on a foundation of anonymity has struck a chord with users — in 2016, DuckDuckGo surpassed 10 billion anonymous searches. Given its rapid growth, the company seems poised to change the way users explore, search, and stay secure on the internet.
A Search Engine Built to Accurately Answer Questions While Maintaining User Anonymity
DuckDuckGo evolved from a series of entrepreneurial projects that Gabriel embarked on after graduating from MIT. According to Fast Company, he’d been pursuing interests in a few areas, including a “Quora-style Q&A” and programs that would help combat spam and structured data. Initially, he wasn’t seeing much success, but then he realized that if he combined them, he might have something interesting.
DuckDuckGo is a search engine that offers direct answers to search queries rather than just a list of keyword-related links. The website syndicates those lists from other sources — although the engine uses its own programs to filter these results, thereby cutting down on spam. It also uses crowdsourcing to provide what it calls “Instant Answers” on results where the best answer is displayed up top in a brief paragraph.
Search optimization — providing users answers faster and with fewer clicks — was Gabriel’s priority in starting DuckDuckGo. But shortly after launch, it became apparent that privacy was not only essential to building user trust, it was also the way that DuckDuckGo could stand out from competitors — especially Google. So Gabriel shifted the company focus to incorporate privacy concerns.
“The data that you share with your search engine is the most personal data,” Gabriel told The Guardian, “because you don’t hold back with your search engine. You don’t think about it in that context. You think ‘Oh, I’ve got a financial problem…just type it in!’ And so, that search history is really personal.”
Those search engine records are used in marketing and even in surveillance. In fact, DuckDuckGo’s rapid growth in popularity has been attributed, in part, to public concerns about the NSA storing private phone data, according to news reports. For Gabriel, storing personal data does nothing to benefit the business, so why collect it — especially when doing so makes gaining user trust more difficult?
“I think search engines should be set up to be the minimal collection as needed, as opposed to the maximal collection possible,” he told The Guardian, “Some are not actually using that data currently to improve your search results in any significant way — as far as we can tell. They’re using it for other things. They’re using it to track you across the ad network.”
By skipping unnecessary data collection, DuckDuckGo still provides users with all the information they need but also builds a culture of trust. For people seeking less visibility in a hyper-visible world, that distinction has proven to be enough to convert them into loyal, long-term users.
Enlisting a Dedicated Community to Hack, Share, and Translate
Gabriel ran the operation alone out of his house when the site launched in 2008. One way that DuckDuckGo was able to compete with larger search sites when it lacked funding or even a team early on, was its use of crowdsourcing.
Sites like Quora or Wikipedia rely on a populist approach to finding answers, and they’ve proven that such a method can be highly successful. DuckDuckGo honed that approach and optimized it to help its users search.
In addition to traditional search results, the engine harnesses the knowledge of its team and a growing network of community contributors. To present users with the fastest, most relevant answers, DuckDuckGo is placing its trust in those users — pursuing a model of shared ownership.
In his interview with Fast Company, Gabriel explained the process: “We have recipes and Lego parts and other weird stuff that we don’t know about as a team. The only way that works is if we have a community of people who are interested enough to know about these subjects and then come up with ideas about what the answer should be, suggest the sources, and even develop them.”
The company uses a three-part crowdsourcing system to help with that development, where users hack, share, and translate. First, people are encouraged to join the DuckDuckHack community to help the team create instant answers for searches so that users get a relevant result on every topic. Secondly, it pursues a grassroots model of marketing, encouraging users to spread the word by sharing the search engine with family and friends.
Finally, DuckDuckGo asks users who are fluent in other languages to help with translation, making the site accessible on a global scale. By crowdsourcing, the search engine hopes to make itself more useful to everyone.
Showing That Caring About Consumer Privacy Can Pay Dividends
DuckDuckGo began as a lean startup, but the company has grown exponentially since then. In 2011, it received a $3 million investment from Union Square Ventures, helping the team expand and pursue its project with more freedom.
But its growth is more impressive than its funding. “Every year, we’ve grown 200-500%,” Gabriel told Fast Company. “The numbers keep getting bigger.” Of the 10 billion searches DuckDuckGo reached in 2016, 4 billion of them occurred in 2016. By January 2017, the site was seeing 14.262 million searches per day.
For Gabriel, giving users their privacy is not just a selling point, it is a philosophical belief. The success he has found with DuckDuckGo proves that entrepreneurial ventures can take privacy seriously without sacrificing success. In fact, DuckDuckGo arguably owes its success to taking data security seriously.
Succeeding in the Information Age by Not Collecting Information
DuckDuckGo started as an exception in a world of search engine rules, but its success could signal the beginning of an online privacy renaissance. As society becomes acutely aware of data collection, many people have grown concerned about their own personal privacy, and those concerns are giving way to action.
Beyond the numbers outlined in the Pew Research study on anonymity, privacy, and security, there was another, more subtle takeaway. According to the survey, people want control over their information, stating it is important that only authorized parties have access to any of their search history or email data.
Individuals are poised to take action to ensure their information is protected. And as they increasingly demand higher levels of privacy, technology companies that respect and support those needs — like DuckDuckGo — will thrive.