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A Search Engine For The New World: Meet DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo

Over the past several months, it has become clear that the Internet, as a global network for communication, commerce, sharing, and discovery, has been fundamentally compromised. Furthermore, it has been implied that several of the most popular companies that serve as hubs for online activity are being targeted, and that the privacy and security of millions (billions?) of users’ data is now in question.

These revelations and their consequences are still being debated, but I, as well as numerous other online creators, have noticed that, as a result, there has been a marked change in the way that visitors are now reaching our sites. Apparently, many users are uncomfortable with having their online activity constantly monitored and recorded, and are now seeking alternative software and services that can offer anonymized, privacy-focused experiences.

In order to serve these users’ needs, TechEdified will be dedicating some time over the next few months to explore some of the available options, and discuss what they have to offer, relative to their mainstream competitors.

Today, I’d like to focus on search, and a popular new entrant called DuckDuckGo.

Launched in 2008 by Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo (named after the popular children’s game, duck, duck, goose) is one of the new breed of Internet search engines that focuses on privacy, security, and anonymity. Unlike other mainstream search providers, DuckDuckGo refrains from:

  • Storing users’ I.P. Addresses
  • Logging user information
  • Using cookies (unless the user voluntarily opts to change a setting on the site)

Put simply, the service claims that no personally identifiable information (PII) is collected, shared, or used to customize an individual’s search results, i.e., when you and your friend simultaneously run a query on DuckDuckGo, you should be getting back the same answers. Even better, they have a clearly defined Privacy Policy that is laid out in easily understood terms. I think this deserves a more detailed breakdown, so let’s dig in.

Search Leakage

DuckDuckGo claims that when you click on one of their search results, they do not send personally identifiable information along with your request to the third party. The other site will know that they’ve had a visitor, but they will not know the search terms that brought you to them.

By default, connections to DuckDuckGo are secured via HTTPS (i.e., they are encrypted). Furthermore, the search engine automatically changes its links to a number of popular web sites to re-direct to their secure, encrypted versions, similar to how the HTTPS Everywhere browser add-on works. Supported sites include Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon. This type of protection helps keep your data secure from snooping third parties as it travels across the manifold connections that constitute the Internet.

Also, DuckDuckGo operates a Tor exit enclave, which basically means that if you’re using DuckDuckGo through Tor, you will achieve end-to-end anonymous, encrypted search that is faster than what you might expect with Tor browsing, alone.

Information Not Collected

DuckDuckGo realizes that if they collect personal information about you (e.g., your I.P. Address or your User Agent), there is always the possibility that this data will be compromised. Whether they get hacked, or if an agency legally, or illegally, requests it, your personal data could end up in someone else’s hands. So, the simplest way to address this concern is to not collect the information in the first place. This is why DuckDuckGo states that they do not collect any of your personal information, hence, rendering these situations moot.

Information Collected

As previously stated, DuckDuckGo says that cookies are disabled by default, and are only activated if the user makes customizations to the default site settings. Even so, the service seems to go out of its way to make sure that cookies are not stored in a manner that can personally identify you. If the use of cookies bothers you, you can opt to use URL Parameters, instead. Furthermore, only certain non-personal search data are aggregated, and are done so to improve various aspects of the service, e.g., misspellings.

In order to help fund DuckDuckGo, affiliate codes to major eCommerce sites (e.g., Amazon, eBay) are occasionally added. When you make a purchase from one of these links, a small commission is paid back to DuckDuckGo. No third party is used to insert the code onto the site and no information from DuckDuckGo is shared with other sites. In addition, the only information collected during this process is product information, which is not associated with any particular user.

Features

OK, so we’ve covered all the serious stuff, but are DuckDuckGo’s search results any good? Is the product any fun to use? Where does it get its information from, and what kinds of features does it offer that help differentiate it from comparable services?

DuckDuckGo’s search results are the product of combining the data from over 50 different search engines and online references, including:

  • Yahoo! (through BOSS)
  • Bing
  • Yandex
  • Wolfram Alpha
  • The DuckDuckBot (DuckDuckGo’s own Web crawler)

Even better, DuckDuckGo uses information from crowd-sourced sites (e.g., Wikipedia) to offer Zero-click Info boxes that display topic summaries and related topics above your search results. Also, the service offers a handful of other nifty features that really help set it apart from the pack.

  • (!)Bang: If you are a regular reader of this site, you probably know that I’m a huge fan of customized keyword searches in modern web browsers. The downside to implementing this approach is that your keywords are tied to a set of credentials, like your Google username and password. DuckDuckGo has this function baked right into their product. So, no matter where you are, no what computer you’re using, or what web browser you’re running, you can get the benefit of customized search, while still remaining platform agnostic and anonymous. To run such a search, simply go to DuckDuckGo, type an exclamation point (i.e., a bang) followed by one of their many default available keywords. For example, typing !am MacBook Air will run a search for MacBook Air on Amazon. There are a ton of these available, and they greatly increase the utility of the product.
  • Keyboard Shortcuts: Yup, DuckDuckGo has got ‘em. Check out the full list.
  • Goodies: You know all those tips and tricks that show you how to do all kinds of neat calculations with Google search? Well, you haven’t seen anything, yet. DuckDuckGo has a ginormous amount of search hacks called DuckDuckGoodies, special search queries that append instant answers to the top of your search results. The Goodies cover a gamut of categories, including Cryptography, Economy and Finance, Food and Drink, Gaming, Geek, and Geography. If you have a suggestion for a new addition, you can even submit your request, or, develop it yourself.

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