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.”
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.