No one likes to be watched, tracked. Gabriel Weinberg launched DuckDuckGo to help you search for what you need online without being tracked.
Gabriel founded the company in 2008 to offer an alternative to Google with the aim of keeping a user’s privacy at all costs.
Since it doesn’t store your previous searches, it does not and cannot present personalised search results. DuckDuckGo bills itself as “the search engine that doesn’t track you”.
In an AMA on reddit Gabriel answered questions about how he launched and run DuckDuckGo. He also talked about Traction, his new book on how to acquire customers. These are selected questions and answers that relate to his private search engine.
Q: Why did you choose to build a search engine in the first place?
I wasn’t too into my last company product-wise. After that I decided I only wanted to do something I could work on for the next decade, since that is the time scale in startups it really generally takes to be successful. I had hunches for what that might be, but wasn’t sure, so started about a dozen side projects. After a year or so I knew way more, and combined a few of those into what became DuckDuckGo. I’m really attracted to data, algorithms, answers, and the challenge of getting people to switch search engines.
Q: What did you see in Duckduckgo that made you choose that decision?
I actually started working on this back in 2007 as a bunch of side projects to improve my own Google results, and not as a business idea. I wanted to remove spam and content farms from my results as well as add instant answers from sites I kept going to (Wikipedia, IMDB, etc.).
Q: Do you think not storing as much user data significantly decreases the quality of results of duck duck go? If so how are you planning on mitigating that.
No I don’t. When people say they want personalized results, they generally mean localized results (like local weather and restaurants), which we can do without tracking people. We’ve seen no compelling evidence that further personalization really helps, and some decent evidence that it hurts. That said, we do have a region setting that works anonymously that boosts results from a particular region, and you could theoretically extend that concept in a still anonymous way to categories (like I’m a programmer). That hasn’t been a priority, however, because we just haven’t seen the need.
Q: DuckDuckGo is kind of long name is there any plan to rebrand/rename to a short name ?
We have a short url in ddg.gg. We have no plans to rebrand. Google owns duck.com and unfortunately points it at Google search, so that makes it challenging. They acquired it from a company that owned it before we existed but it wasn’t pointing at Google search until we inquired about it. No idea if there was intent there or not, but it causes consumer confusion.
Q: Do you think DuckDuckGo gained traction simply because it was a good product and would have made it no matter what? Or because of luck and fate due to the country, and world, learning about the privacy issues we face in such a swift blow? Aka, right place, right time.
DuckDuckGo had been growing steadily and significantly (at least to me) since 2008 when we came out, so we had literally years to get the product ready before Snowden in 2013.
Snowden no doubt accelerated our growth by years and we are really grateful for that. However, I was happy with where we had gotten before that point and where we were going.
I agree with your underlying premise that there are still no good limits on online tracking and as a result it continues to get crazier and crazier and more people are reacting. It was already heading in that direction pre-Snowden.
Q: What’s your daily routine like?
My usual schedule involves reading a bit in bed, showering, getting the kids ready for school, taking my youngest to school and getting into the office around 8:10AM. Then I’ve been trying to exercise, usually walking with my wife.
I’m then in the office until 4:20PM at which point I pick my son up from school, and spend the next few hours with the family. After the kids go to sleep around 8, I’m back at work for a couple hours and then to bed, unless I’m really tired in which case I’ll watch TV or some mindless Internet equivelent :).
Today, though I have to go to NYC for the night so it is throwing this off!
Q: What prompted you to write Traction? A book on marketing isn’t an obvious jump for a CEO. What’s the back story?
I started working on it way back in 2009! I tried to apply the same ways we got traction at my last company to DuckDuckGo and they didn’t work to my dismay, so I went looking for a structured framework to get traction only to find none existed. Then I started doing tons of interviews to uncover one and I did!
At that point I thought I should make a book out of it to fill this void in the business literature. But at the same time the framework worked and DuckDuckGo started taking off and so I didn’t have a lot of time for the book, and that’s why it took so long. It is a passion project.
Q: How have things met your expectation from when you and your team started the company? How have things been different or unexpected? And finally, after seven years of fighting Google, are you tired yet?
To your latter question, quite the opposite. In so many ways it feels like we’re just getting started and being able to do some of things we always wanted to do like DuckDuckHack in earnest, our open source and private approach to instant answers.
In terms of privacy, I wrote up my thoughts of where I think we are now earlier in the year in this post. Tl;dr I think it’s time to put some legal limits on digital tracking technology.
Q: Beyond search, do you see DDG also partnering with sites to create a network or exchange?
I think you mean ads. Probably not in the short term. On content we do this to some extent now via DuckDuckHack, our open source instant answer platform. We have about 500 instant answer sources and a lot are available back through our API. For anyone interested that is at duckduckhack.com.
Q: How do you monetise DuckDuckGo?
It is a myth that search engines need to track you to make money on Web search. When you type in a search, we can show an ad just based on that search term. For example, if you type in, “car” we show a car ad. That doesn’t involve tracking because it is based on the keyword and not the person. We currently only show up to 2 ads, as opposed to the many you’ll find on other search engines.
Advertising on DuckDuckGo takes the form of sponsored links that appear above search results.
DuckDuckGo is part of the affiliate programs of the eCommerce websites Amazon and eBay. When you visit those sites through DuckDuckGo and subsequently make a purchase, we receive a small commission.
This mechanism operates anonymously and there is no personally identifiable information exchanged between us and Amazon or eBay. These links are regular organic links (like any other link in our results) and these programs do not influence our ranking or relevancy functions in any way.
That is, they are not advertising like paid placements or paid inclusions, and we only generate revenue from them if you ultimately find them relevant enough to end up purchasing an item.
Q: Isn’t privacy on the web a foregone conclusion? As such, shouldn’t we embrace it and adjust cultural values around this increased transparency as necessary?
No. We already put legal limits on financial, medical, military, transportation, telecommunications and agriculture technology. Why not online tracking? With digital technology making its way into more parts of our lives, and with our data quickly becoming more and more valuable, of course there should be some limits on online tracking! This is the beginning of a post I wrote earlier in the year on this subject.
Q: Given you ran DuckDuckGo solo for a while, what advice do you have for solo founders?
Maybe because most advice that would apply to solo founders also applies to multiple. Hmm… I think as a solo founder you need to find a sounding board and a stabilizing force that would traditionally be your cofounders. For me that was meetups and my wife.