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Duck for cover: the rise of private search engines

October 2022
 by Barney McCarthy

Duck for cover: the rise of private search engines

October 2022
 By Barney McCarthy

Internet search engine DuckDuckGo launched in 2008 with just “a few servers in a dusty basement”. Its modus operandi since day one has been to place an emphasis on protecting users’ privacy, thereby avoiding the practice of spamming them with personalised search results and ads. Such is its commitment to anonymity that it is unable to accurately gauge its current number of users, because it doesn’t track or collect details about them. Despite this quantification quandary, market intelligence estimates place this figure northbound of 50 million.

DuckDuckGo: a gutsy competitor to Google

Despite launching a decade after Google and being dwarfed by the tech giant’s market share (Google accounts for an estimated 91% of all online searches), DuckDuckGo refuses to be cowed by its main competitor. It regularly takes public pot-shots at Google in its advertising, portraying it as an unwanted and even creepy presence constantly lurking in the background.

Where DuckDuckGo can crunch the data, the numbers are impressive. It is currently registering three billion monthly searches and six million monthly downloads, and it employs more than 180 staff. While search engine supremacy unquestionably belongs to Google (and a few other large players such as Yahoo, Bing, Baidu and Yandex), DuckDuckGo has certainly bloodied a few noses, and in most search engine rankings it has crept into the top 10. This growth journey hasn’t gone unnoticed by technology heavy-hitters, with names such as WhatsApp founder Brian Acton and world wide web creator Tim Berners-Lee mentioned in dispatches among the $100 million of secondary investment it won in 2020.

The appeal of private search engines

There is a growing sense of unease among internet users about some of the ways Google goes about its business. It’s not just treasury departments who have had their noses put out of joint, although the fact ‘Google tax’ has its own Wikipedia page is telling on that front. There is also the emergence of so-called ‘dark patterns’ in Google’s user interfaces, where it uses intentionally deceptive controls and layouts to fool people into providing their real-time whereabouts for targeted advertising. Even the most cursory research into Google’s practices uncovers a wealth of controversies, from the caching vs copyright conundrum to the ever-blurring line between privacy, influence and security.

While Google’s Incognito Mode enables users to keep their browsing private from others who use their device, contrary to popular belief it does not block tracking: as you browse in Incognito Mode, search engines are still saving your searches and tracking your activity across the web. Conversely, DuckDuckGo enables users to browse completely anonymously – and if the right apps and extensions are used in tandem, you can also maintain privacy on subsequent pages. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why people who want to avoid being tracked online are turning to private search engines.

The future of search engine privacy

In future, the battle for search engine users won’t solely be driven by today’s main protagonists. Most Google users know that it tracks their online activity, but accept it as a reasonable price to pay for convenience. However, as some of the more nefarious tactics used by the mega-corporation come to light, there is an opportunity for challengers such as DuckDuckGo to offer an alternative solution with the advantage of increased privacy.

Apple’s launch of its App Tracking Transparency feature in April 2021 also helped raise public awareness of the tracking issue, while highlighting how the level of tracking you are subject to depends not only on what search engine you are using, but from what device, where and when.

So what next for DuckDuckGo? A big push centres around its email protection tool, which acts as a third-party filter to give users more privacy without having to get a new inbox. The beta is now open for anyone to try, but the waiting list hints at the tool’s potential popularity. For many personal account users, the junk email respite afforded by the implementation of GDPR was short-lived, so anything that reduces the amount of spamming and tracking is likely to be in demand.

What DuckDuckGo’s future success depends on is people shaking off their inertia and taking their privacy into their own hands. As DuckDuckGo shrewdly observes: “Privacy sceptics have dominated the discussion about online privacy for too long. Sure people care about privacy, but they’ll never do anything about it. It’s time to lay this bad take to rest.”

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