Has Edward Snowden changed the way we think about search engines?

DuckDuckGo, a browser which doesn't track your online activity, has increased its traffic six-fold since the Snowden revelations.

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Heard of Gabe Weinberg? No, me neither. But earlier this week, the CEO appeared on CNBC to announce that his search engine company, DuckDuckGo, has seen a 600 per cent surge in traffic over the past two years. In a playing field utterly dominated by Google – with Bing And Yahoo! stumbling on behind – this is an intriguing turn of events.

Clues to the site’s success lie in its simplicity. The homepage is pared back, bar the logo’s manically grinning duck (see image above), and, crucially, the site markets itself on the fact that it doesn’t track your online activity. Unlike Google, DuckDuckGo doesn’t supply sites you click on with the search terms you use, and it doesn’t store information about you once you leave. There are no personalised ads –  just ads on the search results page prompted by the keywords you search for. As Weinberg told CNBC: "We make money just with keyword advertising. Type in car, and you get a car ad. It's really that straightforward." 

In practice, this means that those used to Google’s personalised search results may find DuckDuckGo a little frustrating to use. It won’t get to know you, and rank links accordingly. It won’t remind you which one of those news stories you’ve clicked on before (unless your browser has remembered this for you – in which case the site shows a little tick next to the link, rather than turning it purple).

But the timing of the site’s surging popularity suggests it’s part of a wider, and seemingly growing, interest in online privacy. In the weeks after Edward Snowden revealed the mass online surveillance of citizens by the US’s National Surveillance Agency and Britain’s GCHQ, DuckDuckGo reported a 90 per cent hike in traffic.

This is presumably because, as part of the revelations, it became clear that these national surveillance agencies regularly request access to user data from online companies like Google – and any company that collects huge amounts of data on your activities can therefore be forced to hand intimate details of your online life over to the government. DuckDuckGo and sites like it don’t have the data in the first place, so couldn’t pass it on even if ordered to. 

DuckDuckGo’s daily traffic since 2010. Photo: CNBC screenshot.

Yet the CNBC interviewers, while interested in Weinberg’s model, seemed a little nonplussed at the idea that widespread collection of data by websites is anything but a foregone conclusion. One asked how DuckDuckGo expects to make money without collecting user information, when Google, for example, uses its user data to power its huge ad networks, and tie into other parts of its business. Yet Weinberg claims that simple keyword advertising is the “most lucrative” type of ad, especially if companies are bidding against each other to come up whenever someone searches “car” or “mortgage”.

Support from big-hitting tech companies will help, too. 2014, Apple include DuckDuckGo on its default browser list for Safari, which implies that in the industry, at least, the site is now becoming a serious, mainstream alternative.

Google, meanwhile, is making some moves to give users greater control over their data. In 2014, it introduced introduced a “do not track” option, so marketers can't target you with ads – but this only acts as a “do not track request”, which can be ignored by non-participating websites. (More information on how to turn that on here.) The “incognito” browsing option, contrary to popular opinion, only prevents your own computer collecting information for its internal history. It doesn’t change the way Google tracks your activity.  

The real question now is whether DuckDuckGo’s new users are those already concerned with privacy or those particularly spooked by Snowden’s revelations, and whether the average person is bothered enough to switch search engine. Weinberg quoted research in the CNBC interview which found that 40 per cent of Americans would prefer a non-tracking search engine. This implies that a large market is out there, which could grow even larger if consumers are faced with quite how much data companies hold about them. Google currently processes more than a trillion searches per year, so if DuckDuckGo could tap into even 10 per cent of this, its growth over the past couple of years could be just the beginning. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.