Ducking Google in search engines


Gabriel Weinberg is creator of duckduckgo.com, a search engine that does not track users’ history and information. (Sean Simmers/For The Washingotn Post)
November 9, 2012

Not far from Valley Forge, around the corner from Bravo Pizza, up the road from Paoli Auto Body, there is an odd-looking office building that resembles a stone castle. An eye doctor is on the first floor. On the second floor is a search engine.

The proprietor of the search engine is Gabriel Weinberg, who is 33. A few years ago, when Weinberg told his wife about his new business idea — pitting him against more established outfits such as Google and Bing — he admits that she briefly thought he was nuts.

“She was like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Weinberg said. “She thought the idea was crazy.”

Her theory was hard to dispute. A start-up taking on Google in search is much like a raft taking on a cruise ship as a vacation option. But Weinberg is not delusional. With money lining his pockets from selling a start-up for $10 million, Weinberg bet there was a place in the market for a product capitalizing on users’ emerging annoyances with Google — its search results gamed by marketers; its pages cluttered with ads; every query tracked, logged and personalized to the point of creepiness.

He called his little search engine project DuckDuckGo, after the children’s game Duck, Duck, Goose. (Instead of “Just Google it,” think “Just Duck it.”)

“My thesis for the company was, what can we do that other search engines, because they’re big, can’t do easily?” Weinberg said. “Because what’s good for Google business is bad for Google users.”

So: DuckDuckGo does not track users. It doesn’t generate search results based on a user’s previous interests, potentially filtering out relevant information. It is not cluttered with ads. In many ways, DuckDuckGo is an homage the original Google — a pure search engine — and its use is soaring, with searches up from 10 million a month in October 2011 to 45 million this past October. The growth has attracted attention and cash from Union Square Ventures, the venture capital firm behind Twitter. Not long ago, a headline in the search industry bible SearchEngineLand. com asked, “Could DuckDuckGo Be The Biggest Long-Term Threat To Google?”

The attention to DuckDuckGo comes as U.S. and European Union officials are stepping up scrutiny into Google’s search practices, which have been criticized for unfairly elbowing out competitors’ content and results in favor of its own. Earlier this year, in a response to criticism that it was acting monopolistically, Google publicly identified DuckDuckGo as a competitor — a move that pleased and entertained Weinberg but that also reflected a bit of hyperbole about just how close DuckDuckGo is to truly competing.

Google processes billions of searches a day. DuckDuckGo processes millions.

“The reality in the United States is that we still really only have two search engines — Google and Bing,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineLand.com. “I think it’s entirely unlikely that DuckDuckGo is gonna put Google on its back and crush it.”

But what if that’s not really Weinberg’s goal?

He’s no Zuckerberg

Weinberg was born in the District but grew up near Atlanta in a tight-knit family. His father is a physician and infectious-disease specialist. His mother makes clothes and art, and Weinberg’s first job as a hacker — a child hacker — was building his mom a program to process orders online. He was not a complete dork. In middle and high school, he played soccer and tennis. He was, like most teens, a bit aloof. He spent a lot of time messing around with computers, and he excelled in his science classes, particularly physics. He studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but didn’t want to pursue it in graduate school. As happens with college kids, one thing led to another, and eventually he wound up programming.

He started his first company at MIT: a portal for teachers to put lesson plans online. He was too early. He failed. While living in Boston, he started another company after graduating: a database where users could submit their e-mail addresses and other people could pay to get in touch with them. It was called NamesDatabase. (“I’ve never been that good with names,” Weinberg says.) NamesDatabase did not fail. In 2006, he sold it to Classmates.com for $10 million.

Weinberg was a millionaire in his 20s. He had recently married. This gave him and his bride options. One was: Where did they want to live? They did not want to live in a big city. They wanted to have children and send them to a diverse school system. They wanted to be sort of near the country. They settled near Paoli, about 30 miles from Philadelphia and within walking distance of Valley Forge National Park. They have two kids, ages 31 / 2 and 18 months, and next to his desk, covered with monitors, there is an area with toys so they can play while he codes.

He has been in Silicon Valley just one day in the past 12 years. He never appears at big tech conferences.

“The problem I have with that kind of lifestyle is that it’s not very family-oriented,” he said. “It’s never been my goal to be Mark Zuckerberg. My goal has always been to do something interesting and unique.”

Weinberg started DuckDuckGo while his wife worked and he captained the house. The company was based at home until last year, when he raised money from Union Square. He is joined at his new office — in the office that looks like a castle — by several coders, one of whom brings his dog, Hex.

DuckDuckGo’s office differs from flashier start-up offices in that there is no fancy Fiji bottled water. Weinberg serves Costco water. “I’ve always been pretty cheap,” he said. “We’re pretty practical around here.”

The model: ‘Stay lean’

Practicality. That’s what Weinberg was after when he started DuckDuckGo. He wanted to build a search engine that people could use quickly and purely. He wanted to focus especially on the first two or three results that users saw, but he didn’t have a lot of manpower to build a search engine from scratch. Weinberg decided to use publicly available search results from Yahoo — which is now fueled by Bing — for the bulk of his searches and use his programming talents to curate the top few links. He wanted those links to provide answers.

Going to Google and typing “calories in a banana” will produce a page of links about bananas. Going to DuckDuckGo and typing “calories in a banana” will produce an answer: 105. The answer comes from WolframAlphra, a computational database that Weinberg linked to DuckDuckGo.

He has linked hundreds of millions of popular searches to other outside data sources, such as Wikipedia and Yelp. Searching for “irritable bowel syndrome” on Google produces three ads as the top three links. The same search on DuckDuckGo produces three links about the disease from Wikipedia.

“If you can control the top three links, you’re actually controlling 80 to 90 percent of searches,” he said.

While Weinberg’s answer system was intentional, his focus on privacy was not. It simply didn’t occur to him that he would ever need to track users. Why? Because his business model would eventually call for serving up just one or two easy-to-miss ads based on the search query, which would generate enough revenue, he thought, to build a nice little business that one day might grab 1 percent of the search market — about five times what he’s got now.

“It’s never been my interest to maximize revenue,” he said. “I like the Craigslist model. Stay lean. Focus on doing what you do well.”

Meanwhile, privacy has bubbled up as an issue online. A recent Pew Research survey found that 65 percent of Internet users see tracking as a “bad thing,” and 73 percent thought it was an invasion of privacy.

“People are starting to get an increasing sense that there are things going on behind the scenes that are not obvious and that they don’t like,” said Aleecia M. McDonald, a privacy researcher and fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

Weinberg quickly incorporated his site’s trackless virtues into the minimal amount of marketing he does. He paid $7,000 to put up a billboard in San Francisco that features his company’s smiling duck logo and says, “Google tracks you. We don’t.” Clicking on the “about” link on the site’s home page brings users to a link that says, “We don’t track you,” and that brings users to a page that features pictures from Google searches interspersed with this narration in a sort of digital-show-and-tell:

“When you search Google, and click on a link, your search term is usually sent to that site, along with your browser & 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.”

There’s more creepiness users can scroll through before getting to the punch lines: “That’s why we don’t send your searches to other sites. Or store any personal information at all. That’s our privacy policy in a nutshell.”

Asymmetrical warfare

Weinberg’s non-ambitious goals make him a particularly odd and dangerous competitor online. He can do almost everything that Google or Bing can’t because it could damage their business models, and if users figure out that they like the DuckDuckGo way better, Weinberg could damage the big boys without even really trying. It’s asymmetrical digital warfare, and his backers at Union Square Ventures say Google is vulnerable.

“We think it’s the right time and the right platform to take a crack at this market,” said Brad Burnham, managing partner of Union Square. “At what point does the breadth of Google’s ambitions begin to diminish its focus on its core asset and open up an opportunity for a competitor? There will be an evolution in the marketplace that opens an opportunity for others. I’m not ready to cede to Google the dominant position in search until the end of time.”

But Sullivan, of SearchEngineLand.com, isn’t exactly buying that theory. He agrees that Google is vulnerable, particularly with intense government scrutiny, but so far its market share has not taken a hit. He also points out that if DuckDuckGo were to become too successful, the data sources Weinberg relies on could see him as a competitor and cut him off. Also, any smart innovations that Weinberg comes up could be easily copied by Google.

The search giant has already come up with an answer system somewhat similar to what Weinberg is doing. Typing “Mozart” into Google brings up a pretty box with Mozart’s picture and key facts about his life, including a lovely portrait.

Weinberg says he isn’t too worried. As search engines turn more toward answers, he thinks outside data providers will see him as less of a threat than Google. And being smaller will allow him to adapt to market changes quickly.

Still, Sullivan wonders.

“It’s a really difficult road for them, because the reality is that most of Google’s users are perfectly happy to use Google,” he said. “They have no reason to change, so they don’t.”

Weinberg is plugging away. He’s working on improvements to his site’s crafty !bang searches. Typing “Michael Rosenwald !washingtonpost” into DuckDuckGo instantly searches The Post’s search engine for Michael Rosenwald. The same principle applies if you type “comic books !amazon” or “meningitis !NIH.” Weinberg has a hard time believing Google would ever allow users to easily search another Web site and then leave directly from its homepage.

Meanwhile, he is spending one day a week with his kids. His wife is working part-time. He is not attending any parties.

“I’d really love to slow down even more,” he said.

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