When Gabriel Weinberg launched a new search engine in 2008 I doubt even he thought it would gain any traction in an online world dominated by Google.
Now, seven years on, Philadelphia-based startup DuckDuckGo – a search engine that launched with a promise to respect user privacy – has seen a massive increase in traffic, thanks largely to ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations.
Since Snowden began dumping documents two years ago, DuckDuckGo has seen a 600% increase in traffic (but not in China – just like its larger brethren, its blocked there), thanks largely to its unique selling point of not recording any information about its users or their previous searches.
Such a huge rise in traffic means DuckDuckGo now handles around 3 billion searches per year.
Speaking on CNBC, CEO Gabriel Weinberg explained how mainstream search engines make money by tracking their customers around the web, saying “It’s really a myth that you need to track people to make money in search,” adding that DuckDuckGo makes its money by keyword advertising: “You type in car and you get a car ad. And it’s really that straight forward”.
By way of comparison, Weinberg said:
Google tracks you on all of these other sites because they run huge advertising networks and other properties like Gmail and photos... so they need that search engine data to track you. That's why ads follow you round the internet.
Weinberg said that by focusing purely on web search – advertisers continue to bid on lucrative keywords such as cars and mortgages – DuckDuckGo could do away with the need to track its users to turn a profit, adding that:
What consumers don't really understand is that their data is being leaked for other reasons they don't even realise.
When asked how use of DuckDuckGo differs from using Chrome’s incognito mode, or other browser privacy functions, Weinberg explained how web users often misunderstood the functionality of such features:
This is another big myth people have. Incognito mode actually is only for your computer and not around the internet. So when you're in incognito mode Google is still tracking you, your ISP still knows where you're going. All the sites you visit can still track you, including advertisers.
Recent research suggests that 40% of Americans would prefer to use a search engine that does not track their internet activity, and Weinberg believes that indicates huge market potential for the company.
He did, however, concede that brand awareness was an issue, saying that “Our main issue is just that no-one has heard of us”.
When it was put to Weinberg that it would make a big difference to consumers if they knew what information was out there about them, who has it, and how they could control it, he said:
People want transparency, they want to know what's going on, they want control so they can opt out and unfortunately they're usually getting neither today. We're offering some real choice.
DuckDuckGo wallpaper distributed under CC BY-NC-SA license.