The Slow Waddle of Progress

I always root for the underdog.

I find an absurd glee in imagining scenarios that end with the underdog carrying a trophy around while being showered in confetti or cheap beer.

And since the NSA leaks and PRISM scandal, DuckDuckGo has become the Internet’s second-favorite underdog (Mr. Snowden being the first). The search engine’s traffic is spiking. Its CEO and founder, Gabriel Weinberg, is making the interview rounds. Major news outlets are talking about it.

The numbers show, however, that it’s still not anywhere close to Google. Well, here’s my underdog fantasy: I believe DuckDuckGo just might have what it takes to get that search trophy and become a major player.

Amidst newfound privacy concerns, could the stage be set for the emergence of a new search engine that promotes spam reduction and a less intrusive Internet? DuckDuckGo might just the right combination of brilliant people, big ideas, virtuous beliefs and rising public attention to make it happen.

How the Duck Quacks

DuckDuckGo offers private, anonymous web searches. It offer its own search engine, but it also allows you to perform encrypted searches on Google and Bing. What’s more, it has also rolled out a tracking-free mobile search platform.

In a piece called ‘Who Will Rule After Google?‘ Nate Gancher at Search Marketing Standard describes DuckDuckGo like this:

“Except for a few add-ons, [DuckDuckGo is] very stripped down and devoid of the clutter present on Google (although as one of Bing’s search partners, it does have sponsored listings). It’s run by just a few people, which appeals to those rebelling against giants of industry.”

DuckDuckGo Mascot

DDG also features a cute mascot and a cheeky sense of humor. Its staff likes to interact with people. They even granted me an interview, and I basically take screenshots of the ’90s X-Men cartoon and leave snarky comments on Inbound.org for a living. That sort of outreach scores huge points with people like me.

A History of Big Ideas

Gabriel Weinberg founded DuckDuckGo in 2008, and it wasn’t his first rodeo. According to this Washington Post article, he sold NamesDatabse.com to Classmates.com for $10 million in 2006. That was seven years ago, and the world has changed considerably since then.

Is Weinberg on the path to becoming the next Steve Jobs? Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have all come a long way in their lives. No one starts out as an industry titan — there’s always some legwork involved.

When I was a young lad, staring at the green-and-black screen of my family’s aging Apple II home computer, you could have never convinced me that people would eventually turn their noses up at me for not owning an Apple computer. My school had better stuff in the computer lab.

Similarly, when I first discovered the Internet, you never would have convinced me that Google would be the biggest search engine in the world. I rotated between Yahoo!, Hotbot, Alta Vista and others, and I always liked to think about who might win the search engine war.

I never expected it to be Google. It seemed like the whole world just started using Google one day — it was never a process or a war of attrition. I don’t remember when it happened, it just happened. I never expected MySpace to succumb to Facebook either, but one day I left MySpace behind.

Technology is unpredictable, and that relatively unknown person with a big idea is exactly the person who will become the next Steve Jobs.

Here are some of Weinberg’s big ideas:

  • DuckDuckGo eliminates a lot of the clutter. It has a ton of options (you can search Google, Bing, etc) but it trims a lot of the fat. Essentially, you tell it what you want — not the other way around. That simplicity is huge — why do you think kids like Snapchat and Vine more than they enjoy Facebook? It’s because those apps are all killer, no filler, while Facebook is loaded with bullshit.
  • Every DDG search is encrypted (even Google searches performed through DDG), which results in a greater degree of privacy. Post-PRISM? That’s huge for a lot of people.
  • Google makes money from AdWords, which means the SERPs are pretty ad-heavy. Most of Google’s products are. How long before those ads become too intrusive? DDG is banking on that inevitability.
  • A lot of people (me included) see Google as too personalized. I never sign in to Chrome. Google Now freaks me out. I don’t like it when I get “personalized” ads for content marketing services after I’ve been writing about content marketing. It’s spooky. It’s intrusive. DDG agrees.

Nate Gancher also mentions the Federal Trade Commission and how DDG differs there. Gancher writes:

“Notice how Google’s sponsored listings look more and more like organic results? It’s within the realm of possibility that the FTC will deem such practices illegal, forcing Google to revisit how they provide search engine results.”

As I mentioned in last Squawk piece about Google and BuzzFeed, that’s eventually going to be a bigger struggle.

DDG also treats its sources differently. From DuckDuckGo’s sources page:

“DuckDuckGo gets its results from over one hundred sources, including DuckDuckBot (our own crawler), crowd-sourced sites (like Wikipedia, which are stored in our own index), Yahoo! (through BOSS), Yandex, WolframAlpha, and Bing. For any given search, there is usually a vertical search engine out there that does a better job at answering it than a general search engine. Our long-term goal is to get you information from that best source, ideally in instant answer form…

While our indexes are getting bigger, we do not expect to be wholly independent from third-parties. Bing and Google each spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year crawling and indexing the deep Web. It costs so much that even big companies like Yahoo and Ask are giving up general crawling and indexing. Therefore, it seems silly to compete on crawling and, besides, we do not have the money to do so. Instead, we’ve focused on building a better search engine by concentrating on what we think are long-term value-adds — having way more instant answers, way less spam, real privacy and a better overall search experience.”

DDG, for now, is using its resources wisely. It doesn’t spend millions on crawling and indexing, though it does put in some crawling work. It promotes privacy, spam reduction and a less intrusive Internet through smart spending.

These are big ideas. Weinberg and DDG are predicting what people will look for in a search engine during the next few years, and I really think they’re onto something.

DuckDuckGo is also following its mission statement and working toward a goal. The immediate goal is not money, which will either sink it or make it a household name within a few years. It’s risky, which is precisely why it’s so vital and compelling.

Search Anonymously at DuckDuckGo

From Niche to Mainstream

It’s vital and compelling, but it’s not taking a huge chunk out of Google just yet. DuckDuckGo’s marketing is smart — it markets to Reddit and 4chan, whose users are likely to appreciate its message and values.

According to Gabriel Weinberg, the search engine values both communities:

“We love both [Reddit and 4chan] and think there is a lot of overlap with what we’re trying to do at DuckDuckGo in terms of creating a better search experience through interesting features and real privacy. A lot of redditors and 4channers are willing to try new things and have a respect for anonymity. We also highly value the real and concrete feedback we get on both sites.”

Weinberg is quick to mention that DuckDuckGo’s scope isn’t limited to Reddit and 4chan — it’s after a more mainstream audience as well. He went on to say:

“We know mainstream people don’t want to be tracked. It’s not just about government, though that is of course serious and important. On the other end of the spectrum is commercial advertisers using your profiles to follow you around the Internet with ads. Everyone has noticed that in the past year. In-between are things people don’t know much about yet, but they will eventually, such as getting charged higher prices based on your data and your online data showing up offline (like in risk calculations for insurers).

The problem isn’t that mainstream people don’t care, but that mainstream users don’t know what to do about it. DuckDuckGo allows people to switch off major search engines without sacrifice, and if people know that choice exists, we think a lot of them will switch.”

That’s another weapon in DDG‘s arsenal — its attitude. DuckDuckGo is not rejecting the mainstream user, not patronizing the mainstream user and not questioning the mainstream user’s intelligence.

DuckDuckGo serves to answer the mainstream user’s privacy and user experience questions – even if that user hasn’t gotten around to asking those questions just yet.

Will It Be Enough?

Most mainstream search engine users haven’t gotten around to thinking about DuckDuckGo, but the search marketing world certainly has.

In mid-June, DuckDuckGo went from 2 million users per day to 3 million users per day. At some point, there was a 50% increase. Though that number isn’t even a sliver of Google’s total traffic, it is a huge increase for an up-and-coming search entity.

That came hot on the heels of the PRISM scandal, and DDG‘s traffic seems to be increasing as its exposure to the press goes up.

Regardless of the increases, not everyone is confident in DuckDuckGo’s ability to become a major player.

Here are some of my favorite passages from Danny Sullivan’s thoughtful ‘DuckDuckGo’s Post-PRISM Growth Actually Proves No One Cares About “Private” Search‘ piece on Search Engine Land:

  • “Don’t get me wrong about DuckDuckGo. I love that there’s a plucky little competitor out there like it…
  • [DuckDuckGo] has done an outstanding job of punching above-its-weight in attracting press attention. It has also rightfully helped focus attention on privacy issues that people should be aware of, so they can make informed decisions…
  • But being a darling of media stories has only translated into one search engine that I know of becoming a real giant. That was Google…
  • AOL Search might be endangered by DuckDuckGo, and that’s an impressive achievement. And DuckDuckGo, with limited staff and expenses, might make it as a profitable business. But I just don’t see it as a serious threat to Google, even with the current privacy climate. Search privacy as a selling point hasn’t worked before; I’d be surprised if it works now.”

Sullivan is one of the leading voices in the search marketing industry (read the comments on Sullivan’s article for more), and many others seem to echo his reasonable doubts about DuckDuckGo.

DuckDuckGo and Search Marketing

So where do DuckDuckGo and search marketing intersect, and where will they intersect in the future? How can we optimize for DuckDuckGo? Is there any point in optimizing for DuckDuckGo?

Before we think about optimization, we need to understand what DuckDuckGo values and how it sees the future.

Weinberg told me:

“We believe in providing a better overall search experience. Privacy and anonymity is of course part of that, but we spend most of our time making better results and interfaces. We focus a lot on instant answers and giving you answers better than links from hundreds of sources so you get what you want faster. In addition, we try hard to have less clutter, less spam and less intrusive advertising.

As companies struggle to monetize across their services, they increasingly clutter the search results page with advertisements, push users into their other services and attempt to extract more and more data from you. There’s a clear misalignment here with the interests of search engine users. We’re confident that by continuing to provide a service that fits what we personally want (as users ourselves), people will eventually notice the difference.”

DuckDuckGo wants less clutter, less spam and a lower amount of intrusions. So what does it take to rank high in DDG‘s SERPs? According to Weinberg:

“We gather results from a large variety of sources for our organic links, instant answers, official sites, etc. Having great content is the best way to rank highly.”

‘Great content’ echoes what Google has been saying lately, and it’s certainly in line with what the inbound marketing, link earning and content marketing evangelicals are preaching.

Point blank, I asked Weinberg if he foresees a time in the near future where search marketers will concern themselves about optimizing for their search engine. Weinberg’s blunt reply: “I don’t think so in the short to medium term.”

That’s not the end of it, though. Results are coming in.

Check out this conversation in a thread called ‘anyone have any experience ranking on duckduckgo?‘ on Reddit:

DuckDuckGo on Reddit

It’s true that there’s not much there, but if what one user says is accurate, jumping from 1 to 100 visits is pretty crazy. I’ve also noticed a few incoming visitors from DDG on the Page One Power site.

Check out this tweet from Meg Geddes, aka Netmeg:

I asked her to tell me more, and Geddes replied: “This is for an ecommerce site that does around 60 or 70 transactions day, 1/3rd search, 1/3rd email and 1/3 direct catalog.”

So that’s a small piece of one third of that site’s total sales, but it’s still something. I’d venture that’s more than that site got from AOL or Yahoo! that day.

A Continuing Evolution

Chances are, also, that Google won’t always be the only search engine in town. Google is wise to work as a technological innovator too, since those gadgets, apps and other technological wonders will keep them going even if they lose the search crown.

I liked a piece from Dr. Pete called ‘SEO Tactics Die, But SEO Never Will.’ Dr. Pete writes:

“When we say “SEO Is Dead!”, we’re usually reacting to the latest tactical fad or announcement from Google. Ultimately, though, SEO is not one tactic and even though Google currently dominates the market, SEO doesn’t live and die with Google. I’m 42 years old, and the public internet as we know it now hasn’t existed for even half of my life. Google is a teenager, and I strongly suspect I’ll outlive them (or at least their dominance).”

The Internet didn’t die with the fall of Hotbot and AltaVista, and search won’t die if Google kicks the bucket either. Dr. Pete’s words are wise – there’s a good chance we’ll outlive Google, and the industry needs to at least entertain that idea and plan accordingly.

When the time comes for DuckDuckGo to take its place in the sun, the disciples of great content might already be optimized for success.

That’s right – I said ‘when,’ not ‘if.’ If you’ll remember from the beginning of this piece, this is my fantasy. I want DuckDuckGo to become a household name because I like what the company and its staff stand for.

But the revolution doesn’t happen overnight– progress often moves at a waddle.