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.
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.
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.
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.
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.