Opinion | A little-known search engine gains ground on Google’s turf

A search engine is promising users privacy by not tracking their activity and personalizing results

We all know that Google knows more about us than we do about ourselves. It knows our web history, which tracks our past searches on all the devices where one is registered with one’s Google account. Web history is supposedly beneficial to users because it allows Google to tailor future search results to your preference based on your past history, but a log of your searches is also very useful to marketers.

After all, Google’s prime commercial interest is to serve you ads.

Google also maintains a history of the pages you visit, which occurs whether you’re logged in to a Google account or not. This is accomplished through the use of tracking cookies and information derived from AdSense and Google Analytics. The company can learn what sites you frequent, in what order you visit them, how much time you spend on them, and much more.

The company can also mine your emails and drive documents, track the videos you watch on YouTube, obtain your Wi-Fi passwords and more. Of course, if you are carrying an Android cellphone, it knows exactly where you are at any time.

However, as far as search is concerned, Google now has a little competitor, built on the principle of user privacy. Duckduckgo.com describes itself as “the search engine that doesn’t track you". It opts not to personalize your search results. The company’s mission statement says: “At DuckDuckGo, we believe the Internet shouldn’t feel so creepy and getting the privacy you deserve online should be as simple as closing the blinds. Our app provides the privacy essentials you need to seamlessly take control of your personal information as you search and browse the web, no matter where the Internet takes you."

The site has grown steadily since its inception, going from an average 79,000 daily searches in 2010, to 23.5 million daily and more than 22 billion total searches as of now. Some of this growth has been because f DuckDuckGo’s partnerships with browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s Safari. It has also partnered with many Linux operating systems, and has native apps for both Android and iOS.

Of course, these numbers are nothing compared to Google searches. Google now processes more than 40,000 search queries every second, which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide. However, DuckDuckGo is growing and on the net one can find some favourable comparisons between DuckDuckGo and Google.

I tried to test the two search engines. I keyed in “Narendra Modi". Google’s search results were certainly more useful at first glance. It gave me news stories, Twitter results, videos in addition to text web links. DuckDuckGo gave me Modi’s home page, recent news, his Wikipedia page and his Twitter handle. To get videos, I clicked on the ‘Videos’ option, and there was a nice menu which let one choose between ‘Past Day’, ‘Past Week’, ‘Past Month’ and ‘Any Time’.

DuckDuckGo has a few nice features that Google does not have. For instance, ‘bang’, which is helpful if the users are pretty sure what they are looking for. So, if one is looking for the Wikipedia page for Virat Kohli, one can just type in “!w Virat Kohli" and reach there instantly. One can do the same for a Google search. Type in “!g search term" and you reach the google page, or “!gi search term" for images. It may seem odd that DuckDuckGo allows a Google search, given its commitment to user privacy, but it encrypts the search request so Google cannot trace it to you.

You can also do things like generate a QR code by simply typing in “qr" and then the URL you want a QR code for.

However, DuckDuckGo has a very long way to go before it can pose any sort of serious challenge to Google in search. I typed in “Israel" in Google, and the suggested searches I got were “Israel tourism", “Israel history", “Israel map", “Israel Jerusalem", “Israel capital", “Israel continent", “Israel population" and “Israel language".

I did the same in DuckDuckGo, and I got “Israel maps", “Israel news headlines", “Israel Houghton", “Israelites", “Israel kamakawiwo’ole", “Israel keyes", “Israel adesanya ufc", and “Israel cancer cure".

Of course, all it means is that people with some pretty niche interests have been searching DuckDuckGo for “Israel", but to a general user like me, it just seemed plain weird.

Hopefully, as the number of users grows, the quality of suggested searches will also grow better.

So how does DuckDuckGo make money? Like Google, through advertising. But unlike Google, it doesn’t trace the user’s web history and other details and serve up ads. It uses the user’s key word searches to decide what ads to show them. Will it survive? One never knows, but with Google getting more controversial by the day, there is already a nascent movement on the net promoting DuckDuckGo. In fact, some sly people are suggesting installing DuckDuckGo as the default browser and using its Google search function using the “!g" appellation. So you get the best of Google search and Google does not get your data.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines.