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There’s no denying it. These days, Google has lost whatever innocence it used to possess. There may have been a time when its motto “Don’t be Evil” rang true. But now, we know more about how the search giant tracks user activity, bows down to repressive governments, and privileges paid advertisers over individual privacy.
But what can you do if using Google leaves a bad taste in your mouth? Actually, search engine alternatives like DuckDuckGo (DDG) could be the answer. Don’t switch yet, though. Read this DuckDuckGo review for a full appraisal of what this Google competitor offers, and whether it’s a more private way to search the web.
Introducing private search engines
DuckDuckGo is part of a relatively new breed of search providers that have come to be known as private search engines. We call them “private” in comparison to Google – the market leader. As you’re probably aware, Google has a poor reputation when it comes to collecting data on users, along with other privacy issues.
Just to name a few historical problems with Google:
- Cookies – each Google search beams a cookie to the user’s computer, which tracks where they go, and what they search for. This may be necessary to satisfy Google’s business model, but it means that the search engine is much more invasive than it needs to be.
- User tracking – Cookies also allow Google to track users on their paths around the web. The company claims that this is anonymized, but as it’s based around IP addresses, that’s not necessarily true. Either way, it lets Google build up in-depth profiles for marketing purposes.
- Information sharing with developers – sometimes, Google seems more loyal to paying customers than ordinary users. For example, its email arm, Gmail, has been unmasked as allowing developers access to users’ contact lists and emails.
- Doubts about links to the security state – Google is part of the In-Q-Tel program, and has not been open about its links with the NSA and CIA. In fact, some security experts have argued that the CIA “made” Google via investment decisions. Can we trust it to keep our data private?
Private search engines are a response to problems like this. As web users become more informed about how search giants work, they are flocking to alternatives which seem to take a more ethical, trustworthy stance.
The question for this DuckDuckGo review is whether one of the leading Google alternatives is worth your attention, or whether it is just a cheap imitation of its more famous cousin. Let’s dive in deeper to discover the truth.
Getting to know DuckDuckGo
Firstly, you’ll probably want to know where the zany name comes from. Some people may see a code or a hidden message, but the reality is more prosaic. Founder Gabriel Weinberg took the name from the popular children’s nursery rhyme, “Duck, Duck, Goose” – but the shortened version has caught on and works really well.
The company itself was founded by Weinberg in 2008, who sought to create a search engine based around answers, not lists of associated websites. That’s why to this day, you’ll find that DuckDuckGo delivers “instant answers” to your queries, along with more conventional search results.
But it’s what DDG doesn’t do that makes it stand out. Weinberg also wanted to create a tool which delivered relevant results without using any form of user tracking. So he created a system which doesn’t rely on user profiling.
The company also chose to base itself on open source software, which is held on the GitHub repository – an indication of where its heart lies, and something which definitely separates the engine from Google.
However, don’t be fooled. DDG is a profit-making venture which has struck partnerships with major corporations like Yahoo and Apple. It’s not a charitable venture. It’s a search company which – while dwarfed by Google – processes 30 million daily searches.
DuckDuckGo: key features
Before moving onto more detail, let’s recap what DuckDuckGo is, and some of it’s most important features:
- Takes search results from a coalition of 400+ sources, including DDG’s own search crawler, as well as Bing, Yahoo, and Search BOSS
- Offers web search without user tracking – DDG doesn’t log or track any IP addresses or rely on cookies to profile users.
- Search results tend to have a strong focus on “quality,” with companies like eHow relegated in results, and reputable news sources given added promotion.
- Offers almost totally anonymous searching via a Tor portal.
- !Bangs are also available. These search modifiers allow DDG users to search indexes on thousands of third-party websites by using the main DDG engine.
- DDG is a profit-making company, with ad partnerships with Amazon, Yahoo, and eBay.
- A DuckDuckGo mobile app is available, which provides privacy updates on websites before you visit them and includes measures to neutralize ad trackers.
DuckDuckGo video review
How does DuckDuckGo work?
The key difference between how DDG works, and how Google works, revolves around something called IP leakage. When you make a Google search and click on a link, Google will send that site the search terms you used to reach that link. And this will also tend to include your IP address – giving companies (and Google more than anyone) the ability to track your movement around the web.
DDG doesn’t do that. The search engine still delivers a list of possible links. But when you click on those links, no IP address information passes to the target site. This means that, while the site can identify your IP address, there’s no way for it to detect how you got there, or learn anything else about your identity.
Additionally, DDG uses encryption to add an extra layer of protection when visiting unprotected sites. And the Tor proxy feature routes searches through an even deeper layer of encryption.
As far as ads are concerned, DDG doesn’t take the Google approach of building in-depth profiles for each user. Instead, it just associates ads with the keywords you use. While that can be a blunter tool for marketers, it’s much less invasive for ordinary web users.
Is DuckDuckGo safe to use?
So far in this DuckDuckGo review, we’ve been pretty positive about the company’s approach to security and searches in general. And there’s a lot to praise about the way it does business.
However, nobody is perfect. Some experts have flagged up issues with the way DDG stores your web browsing history as plain text – which gives people the ability to locally access your online activity.
Others have accused DDG of being adware (in its mobile app form), but this doesn’t seem fair. In Reddit AMAs, the developers have been very candid about the way they operate, and when concerns are addressed, the company takes action. Still, as we said: no search engine is totally flawless, so it makes sense to use extra measures like VPNs to enhance your privacy.
What is DuckDuckGo’s relationship with Onion services?
Another sign of DDG’s privacy reputation is its close links to TOR. In 2016, TOR switched its default browser to DuckDuckGo, following difficulties with the Disconnect service. DDG has also been a vocal supporter of TOR, seeing it as a kindred spirit in the fight for genuine online privacy.
Since 2010, as we noted earlier in this DuckDuckGo review, the search engine has offered a “Hidden” version which employs a Tor exit enclave. So the links are very strong, an indication of how serious Weinberg and his staff are about maintaining DDG’s commitment to privacy.
Can you use DuckDuckGo settings to customize your searches?
As with all good search engines, DDG users have the freedom to change a number of settings governing how their results are delivered. For instance, you can designate a country to make your results more geographically specific. Languages can be toggled to find more accurate results, and there’s a “safe search” function that parents will appreciate.
Users can turn off ads, set the browser to auto-load extra results instead of clicking through, and select from four map services to find directions that really get from A to B as quickly as possible. You can find the full list here, and it’s pretty comprehensive.
Comparing DuckDuckGo vs Google: Should you switch?
Finally, we reach the billion dollar question. Should you make DDG your default search and ditch Google for good? Here are some criteria to help you decide:
|Owning company||Owned by Duck Duck Go, Inc, managed by founder Gabriel Weinberg, a company with revenues of a little over $25 million.||Owned by Alphabet, a company with revenues of over $100 billion per year.|
|Number of pages indexed||Unknown||Hundreds of billions|
(over 100,000,000 GB)
|Number of daily queries||25 million||3.5 billion|
|Advertising||Yes, but optional||Yes|
|Security features||TOR supported, no IP logging or cookies, no targeted advertising, and no user profiles.||Routinely associates each search with cookies and tracks user IP addresses, building profiles for marketing purposes.|
Mikaela is an investigative journalist that likes to cover the ever-changing world of technology. She tries to keep her finger on the pulse of digital trends and share her insights on the most relevant topics, including big tech, security, privacy, and data breaches.