- What? When hacking group Anonymous disabled a jihadist web site in traumatized France last weekend, it redirected users to a six-year-old little-known internet search engine. For millions of people, that was the first they had heard of the curiously-named DuckDuckGo which employs 25 people and is based in the tiny Pennsylvania town of Paoli (pop 6,000), 30 miles from Philadelphia. Even though you might not have heard of the “search engine that doesn’t track you”, it now carries out an estimated 600m searches a month and is growing fast. (Still, of course, a drop in the ocean of Google’s 750k daily searches). In June, Apple’s
iOS 8 helped users make DuckDuckGo their default search engine. Named after the traditional playground game “duck duck goose”, it doesn’t store previous searches and, therefore, doesn’t deliver personalised search results. When you do a search, it doesn’t know who you are. There are no user accounts. Your IP address isn’t logged. The site doesn’t use search cookies to keep track of what you do or where else you go online, and it doesn’t save your search history. When you click on a link in DuckDuckGo’s results, those sites won’t see which search terms you used. Every user is shown the same results for keywords or phrases typed in. DuckDuckGo says it is also targeting those who value quality of search over quantity. It is easy to see that this is the anti-Google of search engines.
- Who? The founder and CEO of DuckDuckGo is 35-year-old Gabriel Weinberg, who is also an angel investor and co-author of “Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers”. Previously, he was the co-founder & CEO of Opobox, which was sold to United Online in 2006, the year that (still in his 20s) he sold social networking company The Names Database to Classmates.com for about $10m. Prior to that, he was employed at Cadio, LexisNexis (was VP of product development), Notehall, and WizeHive. Weinberg got a BSc in Physics and an MSc from MIT. He has been a computer nerd since childhood, writing programs for his Mum’s home business.
He made a name for himself in the US in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance, both as the founder of a privacy-conscious search engine and as an advocate for anonymous web browsing. In recent days, Weinberg has been speaking out about the need to develop globally secure browsing. But last month he expanded his stake in the anonymous economy by joining a $1.35m investment round in AlphaPoint, a bitcoin startup powering digital currency exchanges. He’s quiet, family-centred and chose his small town base as where he and his wife want to bring up their children, near diverse schools and a national park. Nothing Zuckerberg about him. But he says: “We want a cool office: Real Privacy — Smarter Search — Less Clutter.”
- How? Weinberg has mostly funded the business himself from the proceeds of earlier startups but has also attracted $3m venture-tech money, including from New York-based Union Square Ventures (early backers of Zynga, Twitter and Tumblr). He has also partnered with another Pennsylvania tech firm, Zonoff that has raised $36 million for its “Internet of things” software. So he doesn’t feel as far away from the hotbed of silicon valley as you might think, although he’s only been there for one day in the last 12 years.
- Why?The obvious motivation is the sheer dominance of Google which has an estimated 70% worldwide market share in search. It does not, of course, make money from its many free services but from tracking what people use them for. Google’s $57bn revenue and $14bn profit in 2013 came mostly from advertising and, therefore, from scraping and using the information of its customers. DuckDuckGo seems increasingly likely to be able to unite the triangulated passion of tech investors, free-spirited information junkies – and pro-competition regulators in the US and Europe. People who already know DuckDuckGo are cheering it on loudly.
- What’s Next? At a time of rising concern about web security, it is easy to believe the sky’s the limit for an agile and privacy-sensitive challenger to Google. Apple’s endorsement, by giving Safari users the ability to change their default search engine to DuckDuckGo, has provided an obvious turbo-charge – and the web-scare publicity of recent days will have done no harm to user traffic. The assurance that DuckDuckGo doesn’t track your IP address, doesn’t save your search history
and will never share your information with an outside source is a powerful platform. Weinberg punches straight: “When you search Google, and click on a link, your search term is usually sent to that site, along with your browser and computer info, which can often uniquely identify you. That’s creepy, but who cares about some random site? Those sites usually have third-party ads, and those third-parties build profiles about you, and that’s why those ads follow you everywhere. That’s creepy too, but who cares about some herpes ads? Your profile can also be sold, and potentially show up in unwanted places, like higher prices and getting insurance.” The whole debate about cyber security and privacy – like the global terrorism that is enmeshed in it – has scarcely begun. The same may well be true for DuckDuckGo whose revenue in 2014 may have hit $3m – almost 10-times the previous year. It’s a growth rate that starts to encourage those who predict that Weinberg might just – some day – become a Google killer. Maybe or maybe not. But, instead of “Just Google It”, many people really are getting used to saying “Just Duck It”. Larry Page is not yet feeling the heat, but just wait.