I Switched to DuckDuckGo and so Should You

As our lives become increasingly integrated with technology, privacy is becoming a huge concern for users. Many of the applications we use today were built without privacy in mind. As we start to see the consequences of that, the need for privacy minded alternatives grows.

Whether it be a tyrannical government, a corporation or some hacker in their parent’s basement, there is a litany of reasons you should want to protect your privacy. Yet many free services like Google exploit your data for profit. The adage goes something like “if it’s free, then you are the product”. Users have come to expect many services on the web free of charge. To imagine paying for access to a search engine or browser, it seems ridiculous.  Yet companies like Google have employees that make these services possible and they need to be paid. Thus, we pay with our personal data in order to access these services for free. It seems like a necessary evil, but many companies are challenging this line of thinking.

Enter DuckDuckGo

duckDuckGo homepage

DuckDuckGo is “the search engine that doesn’t track you”. It sounds great, but in a world where Google is king, having over 60% of the global search engine market share, is it good enough to be a complete Google alternative? I decided to find out, setting DuckDuckGo as my default search engine for a couple of weeks, to see if I could get by with only using it for my searches.

The first thing I noticed is that DuckDuckGo has a very limited amount of ads (after turning off my ad blocker of course). When I searched something like “oil change” on Google, the first three results were ads,  and there was a whole right-side column displaying more ads for oil changers. Submitting the same query on DuckDuckGo gave me only two ads, but they were displayed side by side so as to only take up the space of a single search result, and no additional right column of ads.

Thus, not only do you get significantly less ads with DuckDuckGo, but they are laid out in such a way that takes up less space in your search results. You can even go into their settings and turn off ads if you like. Though I wouldn’t recommend this, seeing as the ads fund the service and they have clearly made an effort to make them as least an intrusion as possible.

Further, duckDuckGo doesn’t violate your privacy in order to deliver you relevant ads. Rather than Google’s method of basing ads on your personal data and search history, duckDuckGo bases their ads on your search query. So if for instance, you search “Oil Change Toronto”, it will target it’s ads to oil change companies in Toronto. When you think about it, it really makes much more sense. Why do you need all my personal data to deliver relevant ads when you can simply base my ads on my search terms? It is clear what I am looking for based on my search query, so it makes more sense to base ads on that individual query.

DuckDuckGo also frees you from the search bubble, wherein sites like Google deliver you results based on your interests and content that you’ve ‘liked’, ‘shared’ or simply the types of links you tend to click on in the past. Why is this a problem? It plays into your personal bias. In other words, you are not getting the best or most correct information, but the information Google thinks you already want to hear. I suppose this is great if you want to think you already know it all, but for people like me who want to actually find the most factual information on a topic, this is a determent.

Using DuckDuckGo for regular search queries, like finding a particular website or answer to a question, I found it to be just as accurate if not more than Google, and without the additional invasion of my privacy. DuckDuckGo is the clear winner here, but what about other searches like locations, directions and maps?

DuckDuckGo doesn’t have it’s own mapping software, nor does it use any third party software with any consistency. So when I search an address, it doesn’t display a map of that location as the first result as would Google. Occasionally I would get a result using Open Street maps, but only for about 10% of my location searches. This might not be a huge deal for many people, but for me, when I want directions I am used to simply searching for the address in Google and clicking the Google Maps result that appears.

Introducing Bangs

However, as I learned more about DuckDuckGo, I realized that this actually wasn’t a huge deal because of an awesome functionality they have built into their search engine called Bangs. A bang is simply prefacing your search query with an exclamation mark and the name of a website or service. DuckDuckGo then performs a search on that site with your query. For instance, if I want directions to the Air Canada Centre (to watch the Raps of course), I can search ‘!maps Air Canada Centre’ and it will take me directly to the Google map of the ACC. You can even do a short hand ‘!gm’ or if you are a fan of Microsoft’s Bing maps use the bang ‘!bm’ or even ‘!mq’ for mapquest. Pretty nifty, but this doesn’t even touch the surface of the true power of Bangs.

Logo for duckDuckGo's 'bangs' with text underneath that reads: say hello to bangs

Looking for shoes on amazon? Just search ‘!a shoes’. Want to search for a friend on facebook? Search ‘!fb YOUR FRIENDS NAME’. Sudden urge to watch the latest Batman vs Superman trailer on Youtube? Search ‘!yt batman v superman. Maybe you want to search Wikipedia? Simply type ‘!w YOUR SUBJECT OF INTEREST’ and hit Enter.

This is such a great functionality that will save you time. You no longer have to type in your search terms and look for the website you actually want to search and then click it; simply use the relevant Bang along with your search terms and BANG! you are already there. Sure it takes a wee bit of learning since you have to learn which bangs correspond with what websites, but for the most part it is very intuitive. As mentioned above, facebook is simply ‘!fb’ and wikipedia is ‘!w’. There is a huge reference of over 6,000 Bangs, but I found myself just guessing them and getting them right for the most part anyways.

There are also a bunch of really cool aesthetic features that make duckDuckGo superior to Google. Number one is certainly endless scrolling. You know when you reach the end of the first page of search results in Google and you have to click the link to go to the next page? With duckDuckGo, as soon as you scroll to the bottom of the first set of results, it automatically loads the next set of results below it. You can stay comfortably on the first page and continue scrolling till you find the result you are looking for. It is such a simple functionality that makes the search process far more seamless and enjoyable.

DuckDuckGo is also super customizable. Although most users won’t bother, you can select from many themes and base fonts from the settings menu. As a web developer that has to sit in front of a bright screen all day, I (and my eyes) personally enjoy the ‘Terminal’ or ‘Dark’ themes. There are also more advanced setting where you can set the font and the colours of different types of links and text. Again, most people won’t bother to do any of this, but for those that do, they will certainly reap the benefits and enjoy the superior aesthetic experience, wondering why they ever used Google before.

duckDuckGo customization options panel

But you can customize much more than the appearance of duckDuckGo. You can change your default region if you want searches tailored to your geographic location, preferred unit of measurement displayed in search results (metric or imperial) as well as your default language. You can also anonymously save all of your preferences to the cloud with a simple passphrase (no account necessary).

Originally, I wanted to give duckDuckGo a shot because it is a privacy minded alternative to Google, which is notorious for exploiting your privacy. I was willing to forgo some of the wonderful features of Google in order to ensure my privacy. Yet I found that duckDuckGo not only matches much of the great functionalities of  Google, but actually adds many more features to my search experience that Google simply does not offer.

If you want a Google clone with the addition of privacy, you might find duckDuckGo a bit lacking and are probably better off using something like startpage. If you want something a little different and are willing to learn the intricacies of duckDuckGo (which is very easy), then you are well on your way to a superior search experience.

I’ve tried to cover as many key features as possible, but there is honestly so much more I could not fit into this blog post. I suggest trying duckDuckgo as your default search engine for a couple weeks and really explore all it’s features. You have nothing to lose and you might just find your new favourite search engine.

First Past the Post in Canada has got to go, but it’s not Enough

The problems with Canada’s first past the post electoral system are all too familiar to Canadians. One need only look to the last federal election where the Conservative party gained 100% of the power in Parliament with only 39.62% of the votes. Politics aside, it doesn’t take a mathematician to conclude that a system which allows a party full power against the will of the vast majority of voters is utterly undemocratic.

Many advocates like Fair Vote Canada have been advocating for and educating Canadians on electoral reform for years. Now, with three of the four major parties entertaining the idea of electoral reform in some fashion, it is clear that this is an idea that not only makes logical sense, but that people desperately want.

Although proportional representation would fix a lot of the problems with Canada’s democracy and is objectively less flawed than our current system, it is hardly a complete fix. There is still one huge problem with our democracy: our culture of voting. By this I simply mean our general ideas and behaviors about our electoral system.

Problem number one is voter apathy. When I went canvassing for one of the major parties in Ontario’s last provincial election, the most recurring response from people was that they simply didn’t intend to vote. Usually they gave reasoning such as “politicians are all liars”, or “my vote doesn’t matter anyways”. People seemed defeated and indifferent because either the person they vote for doesn’t ever seem to win or that politicians never seem to deliver on promises once they are voted in.

While a change from our first past the post system to proportional representation would largely remedy these issues of proportionality (i.e. your vote actually counting for something), it doesn’t address the wide spread disdain for our political institutions and the people representing them. While I understand this sentiment, enacting upon your frustration by simply not participating only perpetuates the problem.

Most successful politicians act in such a way to maximize their electability, meaning they do that which they feel will most increase their chance of winning at the polls. Thus, when frustrated voters choose not to participate, their needs are only further ignored, because listening to non-voting constituents does not help politicians win elections in any way. Of course this is not right, as the goal of politicians should be to do what is right as opposed to what wins votes, but alas this is most often not the case (at least not completely).

This leads us to our next major problem in Canada’s culture of voting: the disparity between voting demographics. It’s no secret that certain demographics vote in much greater numbers than other demographics. Elections Canada did a report after the 2011 federal election that outlines this disparity well. Essentially, it shows that the younger the voter, the less likely they are to vote by a wide margin. In the last election only 38.9% of those aged 18-24 voted compared to a voter turnout of  71.5% for those aged 55-64.

Voter Turnout by Age Group for Federal Elections 2004 to 2011. Shows a steady increase in voter turnout as age increases.

Voter Turnout by Age Group for Federal Elections 2004 to 2011

There are so many potential explanations for the age disparity in voter turnout, but most certainly our first past the post system is not to blame (at least not entirely). This renders a proportional representation system less effective than it could be, because large demographics don’t cast their votes anyways.

So what do we do? I think we first need to recognize that having an inclusive and enthused culture of voting is a good thing for democracy in Canada. To accomplish this, we need to do away with the notion that politics isn’t something to bring up as a subject in polite conversation. Discussion is a good thing, as long as it is respectful and all parties try to be as objective and open minded as possible. Heck, even some heated debates can be healthy as long as things don’t get too out of hand. Most importantly, parents and educators need to be sparking conversations in classrooms and dinner tables with children, teenagers and young adults. It is imperative that the intent of these conversations not be to indoctrinate youngsters into our own belief systems, but to encourage independent and critical thinking. Further, these conversations should be mutually beneficial. In developing a voting culture of open discussion that spans age demographics, older voters can gain interesting insights from a youth-voter perspective. As much as our elders have useful knowledge and experience that can only come with age, I feel that there is also much to learn from a youth perspective.

In addition to more discussion, we need to change the way we talk about politics. The major problem with political discourse whether it be two people talking in a coffee shop or newspaper articles, is the negative tone that seems to dominate such discussions. And I get it, believe me. There is a lot of problems with Canada’s democratic system and I’m not saying we should just ignore this and be ignorantly optimistic about it, but rather, we should be focused on building solutions. It’s far too easy to dwell on the problems, but this tends not to lead to any sort of progress. Thus, a new culture of voting should be solution focused, building towards positive change rather than complaining about what is already broken.

Our first past the post system is absolutely undemocratic and has to go, but we cannot treat proportional representation like a cure-all for our democratic woes. Far to often I hear people prefacing their political statements with “If only we had proportional representation” or something similar, as if this would fix everything. We need to advocate for electoral reform, but we must not lose sight of the bigger picture, which includes our broken electoral culture.