How DuckDuckGo Became One Of The Most Popular Websites In The World

Ethan
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SURPRISING POPULARITY

Recently, I was looking at a list detailing the most visited websites in the US. At the top, you had your common culprits. Google, YouTube, Reddit, Amazon, Facebook, DuckDuckGo… wait a minute, DuckDuckGo is the 6th most visited website within the US pulling in 2.3 billion visits every single month? What the hell? 


That means that DuckDuckGo is almost twice as popular as Bing, an official search engine from Microsoft that has ChatGPT as a partner. This also means that DuckDuckGo is more popular than Instagram, Twitter, Netflix, Uber, Airbnb, Spotify, and basically any other service that I didn’t name at the beginning. 


Why Is Everyone Switching To DuckDuckGo


If you’re like me, this is a shocker. I mean, I’ve heard about DuckDuckGo here and there in passing as some sort of private alternative to Google search. But I’ve never actually seen a single person actually use DuckDuckGo. 


Also, if I’m being honest, most of these so-called alternatives never really make it that far due to just how powerful big tech is. Things like Signal and BeReal usually just have 5 seconds of fame before fading into oblivion never to be heard of again. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with DuckDuckGo. 


In fact, DuckDuckGo boasts a user base of 80 million people and that was as of 2020. That number is likely closer to 100 million today. Obviously, these numbers are nothing in direct comparison to Google but in comparison to everything else, it’s insane. 


But not only has DuckDuckGo grown to insane heights but they’ve also stood the test of time. DuckDuckGo launched on February 29, 2008, meaning that they’ve been going for nearly 16 years at this point, or about the same time as Bing. 


But unlike Bing, DuckDuckGo didn’t have the full power and might of Microsoft behind them. They started off as just a no-name player and have quietly risen to be one of the most popular websites not just in the US but around the world where they rank as the 10th most visited website. 


So here’s the insane story of DuckDuckGo and how they were able single single-handedly break into the cutthroat search engine market and take on some of the biggest companies in the world. 



HUMBLE BEGINNINGS 

Taking a look back, the story of DuckDuckGo takes us back to the village of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to a man named Gabriel Weinberg. Over the years, Gabriel has kept a pretty low profile which is not all surprising given the type of business that he runs. 


There’s almost nothing about his childhood online other than the fact that he was born on New Year's Day in 1979 and attended local schools. What we can assume though is that Gabriel was extremely sharp as he would end up attending MIT on two separate occasions. 


Once for his bachelor's where he majored in Physics and once for his master's where he majored in Technology Policy. He didn’t just jump straight into DuckDuckGo after college though. In fact, Gabriel ran multiple ventures before DuckDuckGo. 


The first of these was an educational product called learnection. The goal of learnection was to increase parental involvement in primary schools, and though it was a noble cause, it didn’t really go anywhere. He would end up spending 2.5 years on it before trying to sell it to a nonprofit. 


But after those talks fell through, he would just go on to work at the non-profit instead to save up some money. Using this cash, he would go on to create another startup called NamesDatabase in 2003. A rather unoriginal name but it did have a rather novel concept. 


It was basically a social media site that made it easy to find people that you went to high school and college with. In order to search on the website, you could either pay a membership fee or refer someone else to the website which is quite a clever growth strategy. 


Within just a few years, NamesDatabase would grow to 20 million free users and 50,000 paying users. But, despite the success of NamesDatabase, Gabriel was self admittedly not all that interested in the product itself. So, he would end up selling a good offer that came around from their biggest competitor Classmates.com for an estimated $10 million in cash in March of 2006. 


Most people would’ve just called it quits right here. After all, having $10 million by the time you're 30 means that you could just invest the money well and end up as a billionaire by the time you die. But, Gabriel didn’t sell NamesDatabase to take things easy. 


He sold it so that he could spend all his effort on something that he truly believed in and could work on for decades. The only issue is that he didn’t exactly know what that was, so he would just spend his time working on a bunch of side projects that he found interesting. 


One of these side projects was a Google search results optimizer. The tool would try to filter out spam and content farms and prioritize results from websites with direct answers to the search. Gabriel would further build upon this idea over a year until he ended up with his own search engine that he would dub DuckDuckGo.com. 


If you’ve ever wondered what the name means, well then, I’m sorry to say that there is no real meaning to the name. It was just something that popped into Gabriel’s head one day when he was thinking about the children's game Duck, Duck, Goose and he ran with it. 


Clearly, Gabriel isn’t all that into naming and branding, but he did choose a rather auspicious day to launch DuckDuckGo: February 29, 2008. And with that, Gabriel had officially begun the uphill journey of taking on Google. 



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WHY DUCKDUCKGO?

Shortly after launch, DuckDuckGo did receive some notable press coverage. For example, they would be featured on TechCrunch’s Elevator Pitch Friday in December of 2008. They would also end up as a finalist on the BOSS Mashable Challenge. 


But, while this press coverage definitely didn’t hurt, the key to DuckDuckGo’s growth has always just been word of mouth. People tell their friends about this private alternative to Google, they give it a shot, they like it, and then they tell more people about it. 


Hearing this, you’re probably wondering what’s so special about DuckDuckGo in the first place. Well, obviously, it offers privacy but it goes much deeper than just that and it’s completely different to something like incognito on Chrome. 


All incognito does is locally delete your search history after you close the browser. Incognito doesn’t do anything to stop websites or Google from tracking your history. In fact, Google will usually be helping these websites continue to track you. 


If you didn’t know, Google is by far the most popular choice for companies to track website activity. You know, what’s the click-through rate, how long is the average session, what time of day are people visiting, how likely are they to convert, and so much more. 


In fact, 75% of the top one million websites in the world use Google trackers to optimize their business. And Facebook trackers are present on 25% of the top websites. As a website owner, these analytics tools are a godsend but as a user, they’re not all that great. 


The good news is that DuckDuckGo actively tries to block as many of these trackers as possible. So, using DuckDuckGo not only gives you more privacy when searching but it makes you more invisible across the web in general. 


Also, this often makes websites a lot faster as these trackers won’t be bogging down performance. Putting privacy and performance aside though, the benefit that intrigues me the most is actually search quality. Now, this might be a bit confusing to hear. 



How could a small startup possibly have better-quality search results than Google? 

Well, for one, DuckDuckGo isn’t as incentivized as Google to push their own ads meaning that you’ll see fewer ads but more importantly, DuckDuckGo doesn’t try to pander to your thoughts and beliefs. 


You see, Google’s main goal isn’t to deliver to you the best and most accurate search results possible. It’s actually in their best interest to show you search results that best align with what you already think. This way, you’re pleased with what you see and are more likely to continue your Googling session. 


On a broad scale, this means that if you lean left, you’re likely to be fed CNN and NBC news articles, and if you lean right, you’re likely to be fed Fox and Daily Wire news articles. But this works on a much more micro scale as well. 


If you think that Lucids are way better than Teslas, then you’re likely to find reviews that praise Lucids even if that’s the minority of reviews. DuckDuckGo on the other hand doesn’t know anything about you meaning that they couldn’t curate results based on your interests even if they wanted to. 


So, DuckDuckGo basically offers a more private internet experience with fewer ads, better performance, and no bias. No wonder so many people who are in the know have opted for DuckDuckGo. But, despite everything that’s going on for DuckDuckGo, taking on Google is obviously still no easy task, which brings us to the growing pains of DuckDuckGo. 



GROWING PAINS

One of the first struggles that DuckDuckGo Growing Pains ran into was funding. For obvious reasons, self-funding a popular search platform is rather expensive, especially when you’re collecting no data and showing fewer ads. 


For example, even with 1.5 million searches per day, DuckDuckGo was only pulling in $115,000 per year which was probably not enough to even pay just their modest 3 employees. Fortunately though, in late 2011, Union Square Ventures would agree to back DuckDuckGo with $3 to $5 million which has gone a long way in helping them scale. 


But just as they finished addressing their funding issue, they would run into another issue: Google. You see, it just so happened that Google owned the domain duck.com. Google wasn’t even trying to spite DuckDuckGo. 


Google had bought up a bunch of domains with simple words early on in case they ever wanted to use them and duck.com just happened to be one of them. Once they realized this though, they would turn around and use it to spite DuckDuckGo. 


They would basically just make duck.com redirect to Google search. Honestly, from an outside perspective, this was quite a funny troll move. But, I’m sure it sure it felt a lot different from DuckDuckGo's perspective. 


Not only where they not able to lock in duck.com, but duck.com was actively directing potential users to Google. Forutantely though, Google would eventually come around. 


Whether this was truly out of goodwill or just a way to avoid antitrust litigation, Google would hand over the domain to DuckDuckGo in 2018 allowing them to largely clear up the confusion. But even now, DuckDuckGo is still not truly independent from big tech. 


Ironically, their biggest challenge now is not Google but actually Microsoft. You see, DuckDuckGo doesn’t actually run any of their own searches. They’re more like a middleware. Whenever you search, they go ahead and mask your identity and run the search through Bing. 


From there, they’ll filter the results returned by Bing, remove trackers and targeted ads, and show you the remaining results. For obvious reasons, Microsoft isn’t exactly the biggest fan of this solution leading to a constant back-and-forth battle between DuckDuckGo and Microsoft regarding unmasking and remasking users. 


Despite all these challenges, DuckDuckGo has managed to come out on top in terms of popularity, though it is unlikely that they’ll ever be a true financial hit just due to how their business is structured. 


While they are profitable, they only pull in $100 million in annual revenue despite controlling 2.5% of the search market. In other words, even if they controlled 100% of the US search market, they’d only be pulling in $4 billion. 


If we throw in the rest of the globe, it might push that up to $10 billion but that’s still nothing compared to Google. 58% of Google’s revenue still comes from search ads which adds up to $162 billion every single year. 


Wrapping Up

So, DuckDuckGo won’t be living up to that anytime soon, but that was never their goal anyway. Their goal was just to create a modest profitable private alternative to Google and that’s exactly what they’ve done to great success. Would you consider using DuckDuckGo over Google? Comment that down below.

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