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Going into 2016, Gabriel Weinberg’s New Year’s resolution was to raise the standard of trust on the Internet. That’s fitting, as in 2008 he founded DuckDuckGo, the search engine that collects no user data. As this year comes to a close, Weinberg has the same goal.
In September, Weinberg wrote on Q&A platform Quora, “Our mission is to set a new standard of trust online through the privacy tools DuckDuckGo provides: our anonymous search engines, and our apps and extensions that protect your privacy while browsing the web.” That’s nearly verbatim what he told me three years ago.
Because DuckDuckGo collects no user data, not even linking searches to create an anonymous history, it’s impossible for the company to know the exact size of its audience. However, the site’s traffic is visible to anyone.
As of December 11, DuckDuckGo was averaging more than 24.65 queries a day, beating the previous record set five days earlier. The most dramatic spike occurred in March, shortly after Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. In light of more recent tech giant data breaches, is DuckDuckGo yet again on the verge of a surge?
“I think with any behavior, the first time it happens, it’s not a big deal. The second and third times are a bigger deal, before people become immune. Right now, it’s on the power stroke of awareness and privacy rights,” says Michael Gleason, CEO of Consumer Brands and InMyArea.com. “Pandora’s box is open and I think Facebook and Google have definitely crossed the line. They’re begging for regulation, which is probably for their benefit because it creates barriers for their competitors.”
Data breaches and boiling frogs
Shortly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, DuckDuckGo surveyed 1,153 American adults through SurveyMonkey, which ensures a demographic sample that reflects the population at large. It’s worth noting that the respondents were random and not necessarily DuckDuckGo users, who are more concerned with privacy than average.
Of those who were aware of the scandal — 85.34% of respondents — 56% don’t trust Facebook to protect their online privacy and 60.82% planned to share less personal information with the platform. More significantly, 64.23% said they were more concerned with their online privacy as a result.
“I’m concerned that people are kind of unconscious and asleep,” says Stephan Spencer, an SEO consultant and author. “It’s like the fable where if you drop a frog in boiling water, it jumps right out. But if you turn up the water slowly, the frog doesn’t realize it’s being boiled. I think we’re slowly having the heat turned up on us.”
Spencer — whose data was compromised twice and periodically checks Have I Been Pwned — is concerned at people’s lack of outrage and action. DuckDuckGo’s survey reflects that somewhat; 54% of respondents basically didn’t care about the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
There have been more since then. In June, it came out that Facebook shared user data with phone makers. Meanwhile, a leak and breach of Google+ data have compromised the names, email addresses, ages and occupations of more than 53 million people.
DuckDuckGo keeps going up
No matter how many data breaches there are, consumers aren’t likely to ditch Google and Facebook en masse. Still, DuckDuckGo’s popularity keeps growing and growing. According to NetMarketShare, it’s the seventh most popular search engine in the world. Spencer points out that DuckDuckGo also stands for something, something that’s increasingly relevant.
They have a really cool approach with Spread Privacy. It’s not a traditional company blog; it’s more like a movement and a call to arms for consumers,” he says, thinking back to Yelp’s anti-Google ad campaign. “We should all be outraged at Google for their behavior, instead of just being lemmings.”
How can DuckDuckGo raise its profile even more? Gleason would like to see guerrilla marketing, something that wouldn’t be a first. In 2011, the company got its message out with a billboard by San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, a stunt that essentially doubled the user base.
“Working in tech, you’re more in the know. I don’t think the average citizen has any awareness of DuckDuckGo,” he says. “Remember how GoDaddy spent $1 million for one Super Bowl ad and then they blew up? I think an offline campaign for these guys would be well worth the investment, like a continuation of the San Francisco billboard.”