DuckDuckGo sees user base jump, fueled by tracking concerns

Privacy worries about tracking across the Web have fueled a tremendous jump in the number of users at DuckDuckGo, a smaller search engine that promises never to track its users.

The flood started almost the moment stories broke detailing the U.S. National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program, said Gabriel Weinberg, the creator and chief executive of the search engine.

“We’re up about 90 percent from a few weeks ago,” Weinberg said in an interview with The Washington Post. The site is now regularly logging at least 3 million searches a day, according to its traffic page. While that doesn’t come remotely close to challenging Google, Weinberg said that he thinks DuckDuckGo’s growth in recent weeks shows that there is a population of Internet users looking for alternatives to safeguard their privacy.

Weinberg, who was profiled by The Post last year, said he did not add tracking in the DuckDuckGo design to keep his site clean and fast. The search engine also gives users the option to turn off ads. But privacy, more than search speed, quickly became one of DuckDuckGo’s major selling points.

In recent weeks, this small search engine has popped up on lists of Web privacy options — including from the Electronic Frontier Foundation — and has drawn attention from major media outlets that Weinberg said has allowed him to reach all kinds of groups that he never thought would find the search engine on their own.

“We were on the business shows — I went on CNBC and Bloomberg twice — and we were on “Fox and Friends,” in front of that Fox News crowd,” he said. “I don’t think we had ever had any exposure to that before.”

Weinberg isn’t able to collect much hard data on who his new users are — since that is, more or less, the reason that they’re coming to DuckDuckGo. But he said he’s heard a lot of user feedback from Twitter and in person that indicates to him that DuckDuckGo’s growth spurt has been fueled by the media appearances and word of mouth.

The site has several mechanisms to try to ensure user privacy: It keeps cookies only if a user wants to change settings on the site, such as turning off ads; it saves searches but does not link them to a user’s IP address or with any unique numbers, and the search engine says it has no way of figuring out what queries came from where. For advertising, the site may put its own code into ads to get credit for the clicks, but it doesn’t track who clicks what, only the total number of clicks a particular ad gets.

The search engine has seen spikes before, which Weinberg details in a chart on his site, including when Google changed its privacy policy in March 2012. With most of the site’s bumps, he said, usage tends to ramp up and then level out as some of the new users forget their outrage and slip back to what’s comfortable.

The search engine has steadily gained users at each of those plateaus, and Weinberg said that he hopes visual and other improvements he’s made to the site will help keep more users from turning back to more familiar search engines.

“People are seeking privacy alternatives, but want things that have little to no sacrifice,” he said. “And if they switch to something and don’t like the results, they’ll go back.”

This time, he said, things may be a little different. This outrage over privacy concerns, he said, has a sharper tone than any that have come before, in part because the scope of the violations is on a much larger scale.

“It’s already been a bigger story [than Google’s privacy policy]. Everyone on the planet is arguably affected by this,” he said. The longer the story stays in the news, he said, the more people are going to look for alternatives to the companies named as participants in the PRISM program.

Weinberg said that greater awareness about the Internet’s relationship with users has also been a major force behind user growth, as more and more people are beginning to understand how not only the government may track them through company Web sites but also how the companies themselves keep tabs on consumers.

“We’ve run education campaigns, and what we generally see is when people land on that stuff, they haven’t known anything about is beforehand,” he said. “Once they find about tracking, then they care.”

Weinberg said that advances in the way companies track users have brought the issue to the forefront. Because these tools are now so sophisticated, he said, users are noticing, for example, when a cool jacket they were looking at on one site is advertised to them on another. That’s made people wary about what profiles ad firms may be building from their data, and clued them in to just how much personal information they’re putting into companies’ hands.

“The tracking is in­cred­ibly more inlaid in the Internet, and that is starting to change things,” he said. “There are many reasons besides government requests that you may not want to be tracked.”

Weinberg is now offering the DuckDuckGo alternative for smartphones, with mobile search engine apps for Android and iOS users. The he apps do have a feed of content culled from sites such as Reddit and Digg, as well as more traditional news sites, it mimics its desktop search engine and does not require users to sign in or create a profile.

The apps pick up a bare minimum of information up from users, Weinberg said. They are governed by the same privacy policy – both do require permission for the Web but don’t have location-based search.

“On the next Android update, I think it only requires one permission — to use the Internet,” he said.

Weinberg said the next Android update will include support for another tool popular with the privacy crowd — the TOR browser.

Related stories:

Wonkbook: Five ways to stop the NSA from spying on you

Ducking Google in search engines

Secrecy-focused Web services find a mainstream audience

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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