Feb 13, 2022
6 mins read
What was the most recent thing you looked up on the internet? For me, it was a total of '$120 in pounds.' First, I needed to know the capital of Albania (Tirana), the Twitter handle of Liberal Democrat deputy leader Ed Davey (he goes by the handle @EdwardJDavey), and the dates of bank holidays in the United Kingdom for 2019 (it's going to be a late Easter next year, for those keeping track). I'm sure you'll agree that it was thrilling. But something makes these searches, in internet terms, a bit unusual. Surprise, surprise, I didn't look things up on Google. DuckDuckGo was the search engine I used. I'm also fairly certain that a post-Google world is in my future after spending two years in the wilderness.
It all started with a realisation: the majority of the things I'm looking for are readily available. Was it really necessary for me to rely on the all-seeing, all-knowing algorithms of Google to help me? Most likely not. In order to remedy the situation, I made a simple change: I opened Firefox on my Android phone and replaced Google search with DuckDuckGo. As a result, I’ve had a fairly tedious but important revelation: I search for really obvious stuff. This is supported by Google's own data. In terms of content, its annual roundup of the most searched-for terms is essentially a list of names and events: the World Cup, Mac Miller, Stan Lee, Black Panther, Megan Markle, and so on. The list could go on and on. Even more importantly, I don't have to subscribe to Google's massive network of privacy-invading trackers in order to find out what Black Panther is about or when I can see it in a local cinema near me.
While I continue to use Google at work (more out of necessity because my employer uses G-Suite), DuckDuckGo is my preferred search engine on my smartphone. I had persuaded myself, based on no evidence, that finding things on the internet was difficult and, inevitably, involved a significant amount of time-consuming tracking. After two years of not being tracked or targeted, I've gradually come to the conclusion that this is complete hogwash.
DuckDuckGo operates in a manner that is broadly similar to that of any other search engine, including Google. It uses data from hundreds of sources, including Wolfram Alpha, Wikipedia, and Bing, as well as its own web crawler, to surface the most relevant results for each search query. Google does exactly the same thing, albeit on a much larger scale than Facebook. The most significant distinction is that DuckDuckGo does not store IP addresses or other user information.
DuckDuckGo, which bills itself as "the search engine that doesn't track you," processes approximately 1.5 billion searches per month. On the other hand, Google processes approximately 3.5 billion searches per day. DuckDuckGo is gaining ground despite the fact that the competition is unfair. In 2012, the site received an average of only 45 million searches per month. While Google continues to operate in a parallel universe, the actual difference in the results you see when you search isn't all that significant in terms of quality. DuckDuckGo, on the other hand, is superior in many ways. Its search results aren't littered with Google products and services – boxes and carousels that try to persuade people to spend more time in Google's family of apps – instead, they're focused on providing relevant results.
Google will first inform you that Iron Man 2 is available for purchase from Google Play or YouTube for £9.99 if you search for that term in the search bar. After that, it will suggest that you watch a trailer for the film on, where else, but YouTube. It is also "liked" by 92 percent of those who search for it on Google, and those who do so are also likely to be searching for Iron Man and Iron Man 3. A snippet from Wikipedia and quick links to find out more on IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon, and iTunes are returned by the same search on DuckDuckGo, among other results. The majority of the time, the top of Google's page of results points you in the direction of additional Google products and services.
If you go even further and search for 'Iron Man 2 cast,' Google will display a carousel of names and pictures right at the top of the page, as shown below. As a result, 50 percent of all Google searches now result in a page that is not clicked on. This is good news for Google, but it is bad news for the list of websites below that also contain this information and that you are unlikely to visit in the future. Performing the same search on DuckDuckGo returns the IMDb website as the top result. It may seem inconsequential, but issues such as these are critical to understanding how the internet works – and who benefits the most from it. A perceived bias towards its own products and services in the prioritisation of search results has landed Google in hot water with the European Commission, which has slapped it with multi-billion-pound fines and launched investigation after investigation into alleged anti-competitive behaviour in the search engine. As the Federal Trade Commission points out, what's good for Google isn't necessarily good for consumers or competitors.
Then there's the issue of privacy. The majority of the time, when you search for something on DuckDuckGo, you will just get a list of links or an extremely brief snippet with the exact information you were looking for. This is accomplished without storing or tracking my previous search history on the site. Nor is the information I enter into a search engine collected and shared with advertisers, allowing them to micro-target me with a variety of products I'm unlikely to purchase. The advertisements that I do see on DuckDuckGo, which the company claims generates more than enough revenue to allow it to continue operating, are more general in nature. When I searched for bank holidays in the United Kingdom, I came across an advertisement for a package holiday company.
In a quick office survey, we discovered a similar level of search tedium: recent Google searches included the terms 'capitalist,' 'toxoplasmosis," and "hyde park police." For the most part, what we're looking for on the internet is straightforward: definitions, businesses, names, and locations. When I'm looking for something extremely specific, DuckDuckGo has struggled to deliver results. As an example, if you search for 'film Leonardo Dicaprio goats scene' in DuckDuckGo, the search engine does not recognised that you are looking for the film Blood Diamond. Google is one of them. While Google, with its vastly greater pool of search data, is capable of guessing what I'm looking for, DuckDuckGo necessitates a little more assistance. That doesn't rule out the possibility of finding what I'm looking for, but it does mean that I'll have to modify my search term a couple of times in order to narrow the field of possibilities.
However, such opportunities are few and far between. Yes, Google has more bells and whistles than the competition. However, once you stop paying attention to them, such bells and whistles are quickly forgotten. Realizing that the majority of your online searches are really, really, really obvious is a liberating realisation. The name of that hideous ear-worm that's been stuck in your head all day doesn't have to be tracked down and targeted (in my case, it was Vanessa Carlton's A Thousand Miles, for reasons I don't understand). DuckDuckGo assists you in the same way that Google does: you tap in a random line of lyrics, it finds them on a website that contains song lyrics, and voila, the ear-worm is no longer alive.
It's not a fair fight, but it's one in which the underdog, for some reason, has a chance to win. Despite the fact that DuckDuckGo has 78 employees and Google has 114,096 employees, the results are frequently identical. It turns out that David is just as effective as Goliath for the vast majority of your searches.