Keeping online privacy alive with DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo's homepage (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

DuckDuckGo’s homepage (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

I never quite understood Google’s philosophy when it comes to the way it does business. I understand it’s advertising based, but why does it need to be so invasive to display targeted ads?

I suppose magazines and television networks do something similar. They often get a hold of an idea of who’s reading or watching so it’s easier for advertisers to target the type of customers they want.

But this goes much further than that. Does Google need to record every search? Do they need to look into your emails to tailor-make ads? Do they need to serve you ads based on your past searches? When you look at their entire web of products, which includes YouTube, Google Calendar, Google News, Google Now, Android and the rest, Google probably knows you better than you know yourself.

That’s really horrifying when you think about it because what people search online is very revealing. AOL learned that the hard way when they released the search histories of more than 650,000 of its users in 2006. While they did try to anonymize the data, some of the queries were so specific that it may have been easy to tell where the person lived, their age and other personal info, which was bad by itself, but it proved to be an absolute nightmare when the search queries turned particularly dark and grim. Needless to say they were sued.

If you thought that fiasco was a one-off thing, you’d be wrong. Excite and AltaVista (remember them?) did something similar at the dawn of the millennium, and I doubt AOL’s debacle was the last. You’d think surely the search engine giants learned by now not to share queries even if they’re “anonymized,” but no. Bing’s Privacy Statement straight up says, “we may share some anonymized search query data with selected third parties for research purposes.”

Bing also says they share information with the websites you visit including your search terms. If that wasn’t troubling enough, search engines also legally have to hand over your info to the government if they request it. In Google’s case, it gives that info to other companies or organizations too as they see fit. If you want to sweat some more: Ever wonder what would happen if someone hacked into Google or an employee goes rogue and makes off with your search queries? Well hope you’re cool with your deepest darkest secrets in the hands of someone else.

Now that’s beyond creepy, it’s scary, isn’t it? Well if you think so, DuckDuckGo was created with you in mind and they do a great job explaining how they protect your privacy on their site. They think search engines don’t need to track users to serve relevant ads as they can just serve ads that simply include the terms in the search query.

While privacy is a great thing, it’s still a bit curious that DuckDuckGo would make a search engine primarily focused on just that considering invasiveness is where the money is at on the web these days.

I suspect it’s because DuckDuckGo believes it can be profitable as once people are aware of how much their privacy is at risk when using Google and the other big search engines that they will no longer want to use them. People also may not want to even support advertisers on Google. They may try to find ways to get around their prying eyes by installing ad blockers or other extensions that block web analytics.

On the other hand, users of DuckDuckGo may feel more comfortable clicking ads and may choose to no longer avoid them simply because they know through DuckDuckGo that they’re going the extra mile to respect their personal information.

So, while advertisers may not get to target their ads to precisely the type of people they could as with Google, they may get more clicks than they might think through DuckDuckGo. That’s because users appreciate that they’re respecting their privacy.

This is just speculation, but a business model built on trust could be interesting in the competitive Internet space.

If you're using an ad blocker expect to see this next to your search results (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

If you’re using an ad blocker expect to see this next to your search results (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

It appears that this trust and honesty thing is a two-way street, however. DuckDuckGo will ask you nicely to disable your ad blocker if it notices that you’re using one and has a page explaining why. So, since DuckDuckGo is nice enough to protect your privacy, they’d like you to do them a solid by disabling your ad blocker.

Still, you have to ask, is there much of a market for DuckDuckGo? I suspect that many people who use the net are ignorant to its security problems or don’t care about privacy online. The truly paranoid, probably don’t use the Internet at all, or if they do they might not even bring themselves to trust DuckDuckGo.

A search for CTV wtih out setting the region to Canada in Settings (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

A search for CTV without setting the region to Canada in Settings (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

Also, for those who care about privacy, being the nice guy out of the bunch can only take you so far—you have to be able to deliver a competitive product to be ultimately successful. That’s where things get murky for DuckDuckGo. It’s pretty terrible when it comes to searches pertaining to Canadians…but that’s without any customization. For example, without the localization settings in place when you search CTV, you get some very weird results. Yes, the CTV we all know and love shows up on top, but then you’ll see results like CTV Coptic Orthodox Church Channel (with a description in what appears to be Arabic), a random LiveStream.com stream, a page for The University of Chicago, New Zealand’s Canterbury Television makes an appearance, some suburban community access channel does too and of course, Columbus public health (because when we think CTV we think Columbus public health). Granted, there are a few results I’d expect like CTV’s Wikipedia page and a link to eTalk, but overall it’s terrible. That’s until you specifically go into the settings and set the regionalization to Canada, then you’ll get some results similar to Google’s.

NBC's results are still decent even if you didn't set your region (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

NBC’s results are still decent even if you didn’t set your region (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

Compare that to NBC’s results on DuckDuckGo. Without the change to the localization settings you get NBC’s home page as well as NBC News, NBC Olympics, MSNBC and NBC’s Wikipedia, YouTube and Facebook pages. It’s far better, and notice how there are no results for the likes of the National Bank of Canada (which sometimes goes by NBC—its website is even nbc.ca).

Google, on the other hand, does the localization automatically. It redirects you to Google.ca if you type Google.com in your browser while you’re in Canada. Google also automatically gives you results geared to you. However, Google has far fewer actual search results than DuckDuckGo (which is a bit shocking considering search is what it’s known for). Google seems to have gotten too big and lost its way. It appears confused as it’s heading into so many different directions, like Google Glass, Android and Chromecast.

Google has really lost its way and now populates search results pages with a lot of unnecessary junk (screenshot via Google/Evernote)

Google has really lost its way and now populates search results pages with a lot of unnecessary junk (screenshot via Google/Evernote)

While an NBC search on Google brings up related results, there’s a lot of other stuff populating the search results page too. There’s a Now card, news results, in-depth articles, related items and a related results card. Comparably a Google search for CTV brings more results than the Google search for NBC. There are results for CTV’s local newscasts, a list of related searches, “News for CTV” and that’s about it. Google doesn’t seem to show CTV the same amount of attention it does to NBC, which might be for the best when you think about it because they filled up the NBC search results page with a lot of crap.

Don't forget to go to DuckDuckGo's Settings page to set your Region (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

Don’t forget to go to DuckDuckGo’s Settings page to set your Region (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

I feel that since DuckDuckGo’s search results are devastatingly bad without changing the regionalization settings that it could be hard for DuckDuckGo to gain loyal users. If you were just to do a test search for something local you’d likely get results back that would scare you away and make you think long and hard about coming back.

If DuckDuckGo put a little message on the homepage saying that you should go to the settings and select your region, I’d have a feeling they’d have a few more regular users. It isn’t immediately obvious that you have to go into the settings and change the region to get relevant results. It may even be better to put a little flag somewhere on the screen and you can click it to change it to the country of your choice.

Looking on the bright side, however, there are some things DuckDuckGo does that virtually no other search engine does, such as putting in a term followed by an exclamation mark before the site name you want to search allows you to search the site right from DuckDuckGo, they call them !Bangs. I tried it with Canadian retailer Indigo by putting in “John Green !Indigo” in the search bar and it took me right to Indigo and brought up a page with results for “John Green.”

It can be disappointing when you find a !Bang that doesn't work (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

It can be disappointing when you find a !Bang that doesn’t work (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

It didn’t work for Canadian Tire unfortunately and !Bangs also don’t appear to follow the regionalization setting. So if you put in “Skittles !Walmart” you’ll get results from the American Walmart site instead of Walmart’s Canadian site. If you’re wondering the !Bang “!WalmartCanada” doesn’t work either, but you can take a look at all the supported !Bangs here. Some of the big websites even have shortcuts like !a for Amazon. If you can’t find a !Bang, add it or suggest one here. [Don’t worry, I already suggested !CanadianTire.]

Other perks of DuckDuckGo include simply scrolling down to see more results (not having to click for another page of results) and clicking on a site’s icon to show you more results from that website.
When you open the DuckDuckGo mobile app you're presented with some Zite-like interesting stories (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

When you open the DuckDuckGo mobile app you’re presented with some Zite-like interesting stories (screenshot via DuckDuckGo)

DuckDuckGo also has mobile apps. On top of bringing private search to your phone or tablet, it also compiles a Zite-like list of interesting articles. Unlike Zite, however, it doesn’t want you to rate stories or share your interests. The interesting stories are just there for you to browse and they’re often good reads. Some of these stories are some Zite would’ve recommended to me anyway, but others are articles I wouldn’t have read or found out about otherwise. You can select places where you’d like the stories to come from and even suggest some others.

The iOS version of the app is optimized for the iPhone/iPod Touch, not making it ideal for the iPad, however it still works.

You can securely search you're favourite search engine through Disconnect Search (Screenshot via Disconnect Search)

You can securely search your favourite search engine through Disconnect Search (Screenshot via Disconnect Search)

If you don’t want to give up your favourite search engine for DuckDuckGo, you can still get the privacy of DuckDuckGo while using your favourite search engine (as long as your favourite search engine is either Google, Bing, Yahoo!, DuckDuckGo or Blekko). Simply install Disconnect Search or head over to their website search.disconnect.me. Of course your results aren’t going to be quite what they were if you used the search engines natively—you lose localization and personalization, but it’s a trade-off necessary for your security. They both don’t save your search terms and don’t allow the websites you visit or your ISP to know what search terms brought you to that particular site. Unlike DuckDuckGo, Disconnect Search allows you to search for images, videos and news. Disconnect Search also has an app for Android, while on iOS, there’s Disconnect Kids that gets rid of mobile trackers.

Well there you have it, between DuckDuckGo and Disconnect Search you should have some anonymity when it comes to searching the web. Is it worth the hassle, however? It’s hard to say.

Google has been nearly flawless for me, but it’s so unsettling to know my ISP knows all my web searches, as does Google, as do some of the sites I visit and on top of that the info could be passed on beyond that. Still, what does it matter if Google knows I searched for some Aldo shoes last Tuesday night? It maybe creepy, but does it truly matter?

With the millions of other people in the country and the billions of others on the planet is the odd chance some one stranger out there knowing what I searched online really important?

If I have to go through so many hoops to just feel like I’m secure online it maybe more trouble than it’s worth, especially when you consider that whoever wants to know anything about you will likely find other ways to get that information.

While the search results from DuckDuckGo and Disconnect Search maybe not be up to par compared to Google, but if they’re sufficient I may stick with them, if not I’ll go back to Google cause who cares what I do online, really? Well, besides money hungry advertisers, but they probably don’t actually care about who I am to begin with.
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