Spotlight: DuckDuckGo’s Gabriel Weinberg

As 2015 comes to a close, people will soon be thinking about their New Year’s resolutions. Losing 10 pounds, quitting smoking, saving more money, stuff like that. Gabriel Weinberg’s New Year’s resolution is to raise the standard of trust on the Internet.

gabriel-weinbergWith ad blockers so well-known and easily accessible, consumers are increasingly opting to use them. DuckDuckGo, the search engine Weinberg founded that’s famous for not tracking users, is the default search engine for the recent Adblock Browser on iOS and Android devices. That hasn’t contributed to significant growth, at least not to the extent of 2013’s Edward Snowden saga that helped grow the site by 600%. But ad blocking’s flavor of the week status has got more people thinking about privacy and tracking, which Weinberg thinks has gone way too far.

“As a society, we’ve put limits on every form of technology as it’s matured: medical, financial, agricultural, nuclear. Any type of technology you can name has limits, except online advertising. That’s fundamentally ridiculous,” says Weinberg. “If you look at history, there is usually a period where [something] gets out of control and the industry calls for self-regulation and that doesn’t work, and then the government steps in to capture some of the negative rationalities. We’re running that course, but the time is right, now.”

Industry heavyweights like the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and the American Marketing Association (AMA) are working on it, of course. DuckDuckGo has also recently signed onto the Acceptable Ads Manifesto, along with companies like Reddit, Stack Exchange and Adblock Plus. According to the manifesto, acceptable ads are transparent about being ads, appropriate for the sites they’re on, and not annoying, disruptive, or shouty with their messages.

“People who say they hate ads are generally not that black and white; they hate intrusive ads and annoying ads,” says Weinberg. “We think most people who use ad blockers wouldn’t mind unblocking if they trust DuckDuckGo, if they believe we have their best interests in hand, and they have experiences with ads that aren’t negative.”

In other words, DuckDuckGo hopes to build its user base by building trust.

The anti-Google

Weinberg doesn’t necessarily equate not collecting data with trustworthiness. Rather, he believes that the general standard of trust can be raised by collecting minimal data and having more opt-in privacy policies. He thinks these things are possible, and adds that personal information doesn’t impact the search experience nearly as much as people think.

“You’re seeing it with Google Now and things like that, but generally, the personalization people associate with search is usually localization,” says Weinberg. “We can do that with Instant Answers and still not track you because that location information is with your search, and then we can throw it away like we do with the rest of your information.”

By not tracking users, DuckDuckGo aims to be the antithesis of Google. It makes sense given the company’s origin. Weinberg never set out to build a search engine; after selling his previous company, a social network called The Names Database to Classmates.com, he founded DuckDuckGo in response to his own frustrations with the search giant. As a user, he longed for an experience with “less spam and better links.”

But do people agree that that’s what DuckDuckGo provides? Some do. Without user data, it’s impossible to pinpoint the search engine’s user base, but Weinberg says 300m searches is the steady monthly average. He suspects most users have the search engine as their default, given the consistency of the traffic.

duckduckgo-trafficStill, transparency can get people in the door – you can even check its traffic on a daily basis – is how DuckDuckGo gets people in the door, it’s not enough to keep them inside.

Weinberg knows this. Google is such a force that it’s got 63% of the search share, according to comScore’s most recent figures, in addition to being a verb. A good user experience is crucial if he wants to lure people away from that.

“Our focus is to have no sacrifice when you switch to DuckDuckGo,” says Weinberg. “In addition to not tracking you, we really have been focusing on two broad areas around product. Privacy is a great reason to check us out, but we’re going to need a better search experience in order for you to stay.”

Those broad areas include design – keeping the search engine results pages (SERPs) less cluttered – and Instant Answers, a Wikipedia-esque offering that anyone can suggest and code. One of Weinberg’s short-term goals is to secure more answer sources (there are currently 600) in order to give Instant Answers more niche appeal.

The monetization question

Having advertised on Reddit and 4chan, DuckDuckGo’s marketing strategy is generally low-key. One glaring exception was a 2011 billboard by the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, situated in an area populated by many tech people.

“We were much smaller at the time and the idea for that billboard wasn’t direct response; we were just trying to get our privacy message out there a bit,” recalls Weinberg.

duckduckgo-billboard

The billboard generated enough press that DuckDuckGo’s user base doubled that month. The company’s other strategies for gaining traction include SEO, content marketing, paid social, PR and partnerships.

The latter is one way DuckDuckGo monetizes, a standard question given its no data policy. Partnerships include Apple, which allows users to change their default search engine from Google to DuckDuckGo in later versions of iOS; and Mozilla, which also gives the search engine as an option on Firefox’s search bar.

DuckDuckGo serves ads on the Yahoo/Bing network, it’s other source of revenue. Despite being search engines, Weinberg doesn’t see Yahoo or Bing as rivals. Instead, he views the three as something of a team, united against the real competition.

“Yahoo and Bing work together because they want to provide an alternative in search ads. They have more volume together and now with AOL in on that, they’re more attractive for advertisers to advertise across the entire platform,” says Weinberg. “I kind of think of it as being a network of everyone but Google since that’s the main competition for all of us.”

Switching search engines is a big deal for people. Weinberg aims to lure people over with a combination of trust and user experience, though teaming up with big names like Yahoo and Bing can’t hurt. Next up is finding another scalable channel to grow: that’s Weinberg’s other New Year’s resolution.

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