It all started when one day I was checking the referral traffic of my blog. This is something I do often to see what are the channels beyond Google that are bringing qualified traffic to my website. Yet that day it was different. Down the list, I saw something I’ve never seen before,
A website called duckduckgo.com brought me some traffic. The first question that popped to mind was “what the heck is duckduckgo.com?”
Initially, I thought it was a spammy website, which was bringing undesired traffic to my site. However, by investigating into the issue, I found out a compelling story that it is worth knowing for anyone interested in Startups, Entrepreneurship, Solopreneurship, SEO, Growth Hacking and much more.
In fact, the story of DuckDuckGo is inspiring from several perspectives. That is why I decided to cover it, in its utmost details. More than a post this is an e-book.
One click to get the ebook straight to your email!
What is DuckDuckGo?
DuckDuckGo is a general purpose search engine, which focuses on privacy. Although I will call it a search engine DuckDuckGo is more of a hybrid engine. In short, it uses proprietary crawlers on the one hand. And APIs from other websites on the other hand. The mission is clear, DuckDuckGo doesn’t store your personal information. Therefore, your personal details won’t be shared either. In short, they address a felt issue, which is privacy.
However this was not DuckDuckGo primary mission at the beginning but an adjustment made along the way, which made it get traction (we’ll see that down the road). As a general purpose engine DuckDuckGo mission is to provide instant answers to as many questions a user has. Before we dive into technical matters, let’s answer a question that I had as soon as I started to find out more: How did it all start?
DuckDuckGo at the time of this writing
DuckDuckGo is far from being a top player in the search engine industry. In fact, just to give you some raw data, the major player in the sector is still Google. If I had to use a metaphor, Google would be an elephant while DuckDuckGo is a mosquito (this is not to emphasize; I’m actually making things better for DuckDuckGo).
You can see Alexa’s ranking for DuckDuckGo.com. Not bad after all. Yet let’s look at Google,
Google is number one.
We often tend to forget that search engines are de facto websites. Their main purpose is to make us find other websites, pages or in any case anything we’re looking for!
I looked at DuckDuckGo vs. Google also by using a computational engine, Wolfram Alpha. Here too the results are quite staggering,
I don’t like commenting numbers (we have bots for that) but I want to give you a visual hook that can be helpful to you in order to understand how small is DuckDuckGo in comparison to Google,
Although using a pie chart, in this case, is not the best possible way to look at this data (I assumed users that use DuckDuckGo don’t use Google and vice-versa) this is just to give you a visual understanding of where DuckDuckGo stands so far.
Things don’t look better if we look at this comparison from other perspectives. For instance, If I search for DuckDuckGo on Google I get roughly 3.5 million results,
If I do the same with Google, you get over 11 billion results!
That is from the offering side. In other words, here we’re looking at how many pages of content produced we have for each. Yet if we look from the side of the demand, things don’t look better either,
The comparison does not hold. People searching for DuckDuckGo are a dismal number compared to people searching for Google.
As we know history is written by the victors and so far Google is shaping the future of the web, therefore, of humankind. Yet if there’s one thing that history teaches us and that technology reinforced is that often what seems unexpected happen. Thus, a question that popped into my mind as soon as I started to dive into the DuckDuckGo story was “what if instead of Google, DuckDuckGo conquered the web? How would have the net looked like?”
My romantic side tries to make me believe that another web was possible. That we weren’t supposed to have the internet where ads took over, fake news spread at the speed of light and social media went mainstream!
On the other hand, my rational side kicks in with a few interesting points. First, who said we were supposed to have the web after all? So why don’t look with amazement what we managed to build? And even if social media was a creation of the web so it was blogging. If blogging didn’t exist I wouldn’t be here telling you my side of the story. So after all things don’t look as bad as my romantic side wants me to believe. That is why I’m going to treat this story as it is, trying to be as neutral as possible.
In short, let’s begin by saying this is a story of a company that is trying to build a different web. A story of a businessman that mastered the art of traction. The story of a shrewd solopreneur that challenged the status quo. If ancient people got inspired by the accounts of mythological characters, like Ulysses or Aeneas. We moderns like to hear the lives of people like Ford, Buffett, and Jobs. We like to listen to their courage and willingness to take risks. Yet Gabriel Weinberg’s story is more than that. It is the account of a 27 years old man, sitting in his room, alone. Figuring out what to do next. A man freed from financial needs left with boredom, the mother of all inventions!
Before DuckDuckGo: Who is Gabriel Weinberg?
Born in 1979, Gabriel Weinberg studied at the MIT. As soon as out from MIT (it was in 2000) he started an educational software company called Learnection. The aim was to make parents more involved in their kids’ school life. In other words, a proto-social network. As Gabriel Weinberg himself reports in an interview with Forbes,
I finished school in three years. But I was lucky and my grandmother had left me tuition money for four years of college. I used that and I raised some friends and family money. I lost all of it, between $30,000 and $45,000.
The beginnings as entrepreneur weren’t very bright. Asked what caused that failure, Gabriel Weinberg stressed he did many things wrong, comprised hiring his friends, which turned out not to be the best choice.
What did he do next? From Forbes interview he replied,
I started another four to six companies of various kinds. One was a success. It was an early social networking company. The product was called NamesDatabase. It was a way to find old classmates and friends. It’s a completely anachronistic concept now, given Facebook, but this was between 2003 and 2006. I sold it to classmates.com in 2006 for $10 million.
According to Gabriel Weinberg what made NamesDatabase – the company that would set the stage for DuckDuckGo – successful, was the focus on getting users before he even had a product! He likes to call it traction. In short, to make an enterprise successful you have to split half of your time on product and the other half on getting customers. From the combination of business and product development, there’s traction.
Although NamesDatabase was a successful enterprise there was something missing. Gabriel Weinberg as he admitted was not a social networker. In short, he was short of passion for what he was doing. Therefore, the next question that came naturally to him was “what can I do that would keep me passionate for at least ten years?” In fact, that is the minimum amount of time Gabriel Weinberg believes an enterprise will take to be successful and gain the right amount of traction to scale up. The answer to this question came shortly.
The Solopreneur’s Way
Gabriel Weinberg was sitting alone in his new home in Philadelphia, doing nothing for the first time in his life. In March 2006 he had sold a company he had co-founded, called Opobox (dba The Names Database.) It was a social networking service sold for $10 million dollars to Classmates.com.
At the time of the successful exit, Gabriel and his wife were moving from an 865-square-foot apartment near Boston to a country house outside Philadelphia. At that time still 27 years old, Gabriel Weinberg was too young to retire. Alone, with nothing to do and no one he knew for hundreds of miles of radius from his house he started to tinker.
What to do next with all that money? He had nothing to lose so he started a bunch of side-projects. From crawling Wikipedia to finding answers to any question; to identifying spam and classification analyses to community building.
As Gabriel Weinberg also recalls in the preface of his book, Traction and a series of interviews for FounderFilms he reached the point where he would undertake dozens of side-projects simultaneously. His objective was quite simple: identify the projects he didn’t like, while keep going with the ones he felt passionate about. That is how he ended up starting thousands of side-projects. The side projects that he found most interesting were those that revolved around search.
His point of view on search was peculiar. In fact, in the era in which AI was at its embryonic stage, Gabriel Weinberg took an unusual view. He always believed that the most interesting information was in people’s heads. Algorithms’ job was to identify that information and give the answer that other humans were looking for.
What today Google calls featured snippet, as an attempt to find users’ questions, DuckDuckGo called them instant answers since day one. In other words, one of the primary mission from which DuckDuckGo started was the attempt to answer as many questions as possible. Rather than having an algorithm manufacture the answer, the search engine would be the intermediary bridging the gap between people’s minds to share what they knew.
Two other things are peculiar I believe in this story. First, DuckDuckGo didn’t start as a nerd attempt to find the ultimate algorithm. Instead, he just wanted to make search less spammy, more focused on privacy and able to find more instant answers. Second, even though Gabriel Weinberg was not a lover of social networks (though he became financially free through the sale of a social network) he understood the value of communities. In fact, an online community called Hacker News will be the first to see DuckDuckGo in action and help it gain some traction.
Time for some more tinkering: what did Gabriel Weinberg do after selling his first successful startup?
After all that tinkering Gabriel Weinberg had noticed two things.
First, Google was often giving back sites with a bunch of spammy ads. Let’s not forget that Google is an advertising company, and most of its revenues are coming from advertising.
Before we continue with the story I want to give you a quick outlook on Google’s business model. I checked Google’s 10K for 2016. This is the annual report companies have to submit to the SEC.
Google 10K Report – in millions
Ad / Rev %
As you can see in 2016, 79 billion of dollars of Google’s earnings come from advertising. It represents almost 88% of the total revenues. Even though the revenues coming from ads in 2014 were higher (over 90%), Google is definitely an advertising company and nothing makes us believe things will change in the next future. Why am I telling you this? As a company that makes most of its money from advertising Google might be biased toward maximising the profits coming from ads independently from users’ interests.
What about DuckDuckGo Business Model? How does DuckDuckGo make money? We’ll see it more in detail later on.
Second, when looking for something, Google did not provide answers. Which made Gabriel Weinberg go on the main sites like Wikipedia and IMDb to look for answers. Those two things alone made him realize there was still space to create a search engine able to provide what he would later call instant answers based on the information provided by communities around the web. That is how a year and a half later he realized he was on to something. That something was about to become a search engine with a duck as a logo.
Flipping the switch: The Solo-launch
One day when Gabriel Weinberg was walking with his wife had a name popping into his head. Almost like those things that get incepted into your mind Gabriel Weinberg could hear “DuckDuckGo.”That is how he decided that whatever would his next company be he would have called it DuckDuckGo! (although the name itself comes from the children’s game duck duck, goose)
Then the year 2008 arrived. He had put together the pieces of the puzzle to create a viable version of the search engine he had in mind. Ready to launch Gabriel Weinberg started to talk about the project he was about to launch. Rather than getting excited, most people that heard him talk about that project found him crazy.
How could a young man in his 30s compete against a giant like Google? At the time Google was already worth about a hundred billion dollars. Why would anyone switch to other search engines when Google was proving quite reliable. Not only its algorithms gave to users what they were looking for (or least what they thought they were looking for) but there was also the rise of an entire industry based on the fight between Google and online marketers trying to figure out how Google’s algorithms worked: the SEO industry. Would a new search engine bring the attention of that industry? It probably wouldn’t and in fact, it didn’t.
Gabriel Weinberg solo-launched on September 25th, 2008. On the international newspapers, there wasn’t a trace of DuckDuckGo’s launch. That didn’t happen because it was not what Gabriel Weinberg was looking for. He just wanted to know whether he was on the right track to building the kind of search engine he had in mind.
That is how that day he launched DuckDuckGo on a forum called Hacker News,
Feedbacks arrived quite soon,
From the “horrible name” to people blown away by how effective DuckDuckGo was for a solo-development and launch; after all Gabriel Weinberg understood he was into something. It was time to start focusing on getting traction!
A short interview with DuckDuckGo first user
I had the chance to interview Michael Wales, the first user of DuckDuckGo: @walesmd
Me: Would you like to tell me your story and how did you see DDG evolve throughout the years?
MW: He (referring to DuckDuckGo CEO, Gabriel Weinberg) was super receptive to feedback and improved/iterated on the pieces that mattered over time. But he also didn’t just give in to everyone’s demands.
Playing the long game, having the financial ability to just tinker for as long as he needed really helped.
I seem to remember the privacy/no-tracking being “featured” and talked about quite often long before the Snowden situation.
To be honest, the Hacker News community is just the type of people that take things like privacy/security seriously, so many are willing to deal with some pain for those rewards. Many people wrote plugins and such to switch their browser to DDG. The crossover in this population with Reddit is high as well, so there was a lot of growth there.
There’s some concern from publishers about the instant answers thing, and Google is getting some flack for this as well; because it decreases traffic to sites. There was a good article from someone that maintains a database of celebrity net worth and how Google’s instant answers have destroyed his revenue (because it gets data from his sure but no one clicks through, it’s on the card).
Me: Do you remember how did you feel when you first see DDG? Like what were you doing when you stumbled on it or anything particular that pops to mind, which you did not share in the comments?
MW: So, that was Sep 2008. I was really active on Hacker News back then because I was about to leave the Air Force and was trying to move into an Engineer role – self-taught developer when I was in Middle School. Hacker News was how I kept up on what was new in tech and came up with my own product ideas. At heart, I’m a serial entrepreneur.
When I first saw the post I was thinking, “Great another kid that wrote a horrible indexer and thinks they’re going to tackle Google.” Kind of like how everyone wants to make an MMORPG as their first game… Not gonna happen. The design didn’t help assuage any of those first impressions either. It was UGLY! Take every “Web 2.0” color scheme, gradient, and drop shadow and slap it on there.
But, then… I searched. That’s when everything changed. The results were really good, competitive with Google. I was more interested in the technology behind it than the product itself. It was clear this person knew what they were doing and I’m glad he stuck with it. It’s improved a lot over the years, including the design.
In the end, for me, the privacy component isn’t a large enough factor for me to switch. I have a Google phone, Google Home, 2 GSuites (so all my docs, email, everything). I’ve resigned that Google will always know more about me than I know and trust they’ll use that to improve my experience in their products. Plus, I worked for the NSA for 3 years
Challenge the Status Quo: How do you make people switch to your service when you’re the last to enter the market?
Like any company that is starting out in a market dominated by others, the greatest challenge is to make the user switch to your product or service. The same problem applied to DuckDuckGo. Why would anyone switch to a search engine with a weird name when you’re already happy with Google’s answers? Plus why would you change to an unknown site when you can browse the web through the most popular site in the world?
Finding the answer to those questions meant success or failure for DuckDuckGo. It was time to find a hook, something that would get people’s attention for long enough to have them switch to this new search engine.
The 19 Channels of Growth: how did DuckDuckGo start to get traction?
The growth of DuckDuckGo didn’t happen in a day but it took more than six years. After launching in September 2008 Gabriel Weinberg spent the next two years refining DuckDuckGo. As he admitted in his Forbes’ interview in 2016,
I launched DuckDuckGo at the end of 2008, and in March of 2009 my first son was born and I decided to stay at home with him for at least the first two years. Through those two years I just kept at it and tinkering with it. At the end of 2010 all the iterative work on the project became better. Something clicked and people started to switch to it. Then in 2011 I started to treat it as more of a real thing, and at the end of 2011 I went and raised $3 million from Union Square Ventures.
After raising the money it was time to think business. As we saw, from his previous ventures, Gabriel Weinberg had learned that if he wanted to launch a successful enterprise he had to take care of the distribution side. He also figured that for a startup the growth process isn’t too linear.
In short, for each growth stage, there are channels that work and channels that don’t. Often to hack the growth of your startup at a certain stage you have to try several channels. At the same time when reached a threshold of growth, some channels stop to work and you have to experiment with new ones. Those ideas matured in his book, Traction.
In the book, Gabriel Weinberg identified 19 channels for growth:
Search Engine Marketing
Social and Display Ads
Search Engine Optimization
Engineering as Marketing
Yet each of those channels has to be tested. How do you determine whether a channel is suited for growth? Gabriel Weinberg’s answer relied on the Bullseye Framework!
What is the Bullseye Framework?
The bullseye framework follows three simple steps, with the aim of hitting one target: traction!
The first layer is about what’s possible. In other words, this is a brainstorming phase in which the team starts to gather at least a strategy per channel that may be used to start “moving the needle of growth.”
The second layer is about what’s probable. In short, this is the phase where you start experimenting and testing the strategies that were brainstormed in the first step. Here it is crucial to start with cheap tests. That is not the phase where you have to go all in. Look at it as a testing phase. Where you start testing the market to see what works and what does not.
The inner ring is the bullseye. That is where you identified the channel or channels that are fueling the growth. Therefore, focusing on them at least until they will bootstrap your startup to the next growth phase. Eventually, you’ll restart the process to identify which channel or channels will work for the next growth stage (to dive more into it go to Medium).
DuckDuckGo Growth, Explained
DuckDuckGo grew steadily until 2013 when its growth compounded. Part of the growth was due to the channels Gabriel Weinberg identified. One channel was well-suited to fuel its growth and it was in part unexpected: virality.
The growth of DuckDuckGo consisted mainly of four stages so far (I consider Safari and Firefox in the same growth stage). Let’s see how they evolved throughout the years,
Stage One, the Billboard
It was 2011 when Gabriel Weinberg started to experiment off-line advertising with a billboard, which said “Google tracks you. We don’t.”
According to Wired, that campaign cost was $7,000 for four weeks, and it started “in tech-heavy SOMA district, along the highway dumping cars off the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.”
It was not the first channel Gabriel Weinberg had experimented. In fact, previous to that DuckDuckGo had reached already over 160,000 queries a day (according to Wired) through two main channels: Hacker News (we saw that when DuckDuckGo got launched) and Stumbleupon. Not bad after all for a solo-launch! (although in 2011 DuckDuckGo was more structured). Time to hack the second growth stage.
Stage Three, surveillance revelations
In 2013, Edward Snowden computer analyst for CIA leaked classified information which revealed several global surveillance programs run by the NSA and the other agencies. That is how the privacy concerns arose in the public opinion. That is also how DuckDuckGo finally understood its hook to make users switch from other search engines (privacy has been one of the main missions of the company since the start, yet in 2013 it became the main driver of growth).
At that point, privacy became the primary mission of the company (together with finding instant answers), and the element that made the growth get traction. In fact, as Gabriel Weinberg has affirmed all along you don’t need to track people to make money with advertising.
How do you make money if you don’t track users?
All you need is a keyword. For instance, let’s say I’m looking for a new computer, I insert the keyword into the search box “new PC” and all you have to show me are ads related to that. I don’t necessarily have to see all the things I’ve been looking for in the past.
That is why I often find suggestions to buy things I already have. In addition, my computer might have been used by someone else, which makes my navigation history worthless for what I need. In short, ads may be more effective when tied to a search term rather than your navigation history.
Once the Snowden case spread globally, Gabriel Weinberg understood he had to go all in with privacy concerns!
Finding the Hook: privacy as mission statement
Initially, the primary purpose of the company was not primarily privacy. In fact, when they launched they were focusing mainly on getting rid of spam and find as many instant answers as possible.
Yet after launching Gabriel Weinberg was asked by media about privacy, which he hadn’t thought about. So he went searching for it and he found out a few things that made him think through.
First, that data is the most personal because you don’t think about what you’re searching. In other words, when you’re looking to solve a problem all you have in mind is your goal. You are not concerned about your privacy. Therefore, you’re giving away – without realizing – the most sensible and private information. That information is getting tracked and stored.
Second, that data that gets tracked and stored is eventually distributed to governments and marketers.
Third, a search can work also without tracking personal data. Those things made DuckDuckGo change path and start focusing its mission on privacy. It was early 2007. Ever since privacy became one of the major focus and concern of the company. That is why and how in 2013 when the Snowden case exploded DuckDuckGo found itself perfectly positioned to take full advantage of the scandal. That is a positive black swan!
Stage Four, Safari and Firefox
In 2015 DuckDuckGo finally landed in Safari and Firefox built-in search option. Beyond the importance it had for the growth of DuckDuckGo, it was also a crucial step as the hybrid engine got finally accepted among the big players in the industry (Google, Yahoo, and Bing).
Note: Even though I divided the growth of DuckDuckGo into four stages; in reality, ever since its launch it never stopped growing. In 2012 Gabriel Weinberg affirmed that DuckDuckGo was already growing at a 500% rate on a yearly basis.
Hacker News: The Importance of a Strong Community to Grow a Startup
As we’ve seen so far, growth is a process that passes through the ability to mastering the acquisition channels available. To master those, it is important to keep testing, and selecting only the channels that can move the needle at each stage of the growth process. The Bullseye framework is a good framework to use to test and select those channels.
However, that is also another aspect which is crucial to the growth of any startup. That is a strong community that supports you. Support here is not meant as financial but also in terms of the development of the product; so that you can reach as quickly as possible the so-called product/market fit.
In DuckDuckGo case, Hacker News played a key role in sustaining and propelling the growth of the search engine that doesn’t track you. Back on October 8, 2015, Gabriel Weinberg admitted it with this message:
Thank HN: for helping me get traction with DuckDuckGo and Traction book – AMA
(This is my old username, which I thought fit well with this post. You may know me now as yegg.)
I launched DuckDuckGo on HN (then Startup News) seven years ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=315142 and the idea of Traction book five years ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2098068. If I hadn’t gotten encouragement and excitement in these threads (which I did!) then I might have quit each shortly after. So thank you for that!
In 2009-2010, when I was struggling to get traction for DuckDuckGo, I started doing a series of interviews on my blog with successful founders about how they got traction in an effort to uncover a structured process for doing so. Naturally, I interviewed a lot of HN greats like patio11 (Patrick McKenzie), justin (Justin Kan), garry (Garry Tan), kn0thing (Alexis Ohanian) and other startup icons like Eric Ries, Jimmy Wales, etc. Last year I put a bunch of these early interviews on YouTube if you want to check them out: https://www.youtube.com/user/tractionbook
If I hadn’t been part of the HN community I probably wouldn’t have done these interviews or the series of blog posts that led to writing Traction, which in turn led to getting traction for DuckDuckGo.
A lot of people on HN have used DuckDuckGo and read the book and gave excellent feedback on both, a lot of which we have acted on to make these things what they are today today. The proximate cause for thinking about this was the second edition of the book came out yesterday, and I’m in a reflective mood.
I’m extremely grateful for being part of this community. Ask me anything, and I’ll try to help where I can.
Which you can see the original message here.
Like any startup at the initial stage of growth if you want to make it sustainable you have to find a community (it can be also a very small community) that believes in your project.
One question arises at this point,
Inside DuckDuckGo: How does DuckDuckGo make money?
DuckDuckGo makes money in two simple ways:
Advertising: show an ad based on the keyword you typed into the search box
Affiliate revenue: through Amazon and eBay affiliate programs. When a user buys after getting there through DuckDuckGo the company gets a small commission
The advertising side is pretty simple. As we saw it is a myth that you have to track users to advertise. In fact, one a person enters a keyword into the search box, if that keyword could be related to a product then the search engine may return an ad within the results. For instance, if I’m searching for “car insurance” then the search engine will return an ad related to that. As simple as that!
Is DuckDuckGo profitable?
According to what Gabriel Weinberg said in 2015, the company was already profitable, and its revenues exceeded $1 million. Compared to Google’s 74.9 billion! In short, DuckDuckGo revenues make up 0.001% of Google’s revenue.
However, comparing the two commercial search engine, in this case, might be misleading. In fact, Google has a slightly different business model. In fact, even though it makes most of its revenue through advertising, it uses a different approach. Google has two main networks:
In short, businesses can sponsor their products or services through AdWords and bid on keywords. A click on the sponsored link can cost as low as $2 or as high as $54.91 for keywords like “auto insurance price quotes.” The so-called cost-per-click (CPC)
On the other hand, publishers can monetize their content through AdSense by hosting banners or ads from the companies part of the AdWords network. Publishers get paid for every thousand impressions. That is called Cost Per Mille (CPM) or Cost Per Thousand.
Those are not the only components of Google’s business model, yet an important piece of it.
Search Leakage: How does DuckDuckGo work?
As explained on DuckDuckGo.com
At other search engines, when you do a search and then click on a link, your search terms are sent to that site you clicked on (in the HTTP referrer header). We call this sharing of personal information “search leakage.”
The thing is you’re not only sharing that personal information with search engines but also with the websites where you land on. Apparently, that information may also be used to track you.
What about DuckDukcGo?
DuckDuckGo prevents search leakage by default. Instead, when you click on a link on our site, we route (redirect) that request in such a way so that it does not send your search terms to other sites. The other sites will still know that you visited them, but they will not know what search you entered beforehand.
The same applies to search history and all the related information that can be found from the data that gets stored. To see it more in detail go to DuckDuckGo.
If DuckDuckGo doesn’t track you, how does it know where you are?
How does DuckDuckGo know where I am?
See our Local Results help page. Tl;dr: we can do this anonymously by deriving the location from information sent automatically by web browsers, and immediately throwing it away after serving local results (like weather or restaurant info) on the fly.
Replied Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo founder, and CEO replied on Quora.
Search: DuckDuckGo vs. Google
There are a few interesting features DuckDuckGo offers.
First, bangs. In short, by inserting a website in the search bar anticipated by “!” it will give me back the page of that website with all the results for what I’m looking. For instance I inserted in DuckDuckGo search box !tc DuckDuckGo where tc stands for tech crunch followed by DuckDuckGo. In short, I’m saying to look for all the info about DuckDuckGo contained in Tech Crunch,
I will land on a page within the target website which is a sort of search or category page,
Another interesting feature is the instant answers. Since the beginning, Gabriel Weinberg focused his effort on providing answers to users’ questions. What today we know as a featured snippet on Google. Is DuckDuckGo instant answer more efficient than Google’s featured snippet?
Instant Answers vs. Featured Snippets
The future of search is more and more about answers. Also with the advent of voice search, people will be talking more often with their websites and looking for relevant answers. In short, the time in which search engines matched keywords is slowly going to end. Gabriel Weinberg understood back in 2008 that answers were supposed to be the primary purpose of a search engine. When humans look for something, pose questions (even though Google taught us to think in keywords).
The answers coming from DuckDuckGo are called instant answers and come from various sources (they say over 400 in total).
You type in a question, DuckDuckGo matches and trigger the answer,
That is how you get the answer you were looking for!
Google is mighty when it comes to giving answers too; what they call featured snippets,
According to a study made by Stone Temple, in 2017 the queries that have featured snippets surpassed 350,000,
While DuckDuckGo explains how its instant answers get featured, we can only speculate about Google. In the same analysis done by Stone Temple, Google’s featured snippets seem to favor tables above everything else,
In fact, that is why also for online marketers working with Google is more appealing. There’s a sort of competition between the company and marketers that try to figure out its algorithms. That sort of reverse engineering is also what makes Google more compelling compared to other search engines, like DuckDuckGo, where all you have to do is to go on GitHub and help improve the instant answer with DuckDuckHack.
Yet it is also what makes it scary. Imagine you have a website which has 99% of its traffic coming from Google. If one day Google decides to do a tiny update of its algorithm. That update can have a huge impact on your website. If your business is tied to your website, then your financial freedom depends on Google’s changes in mood!
How Much is DuckDuckGo worth?
Putting a valuation on a company that isn’t listed and its value is based on the steady growth of its users might be more of an intellectual exercise. Having said that, it is worth trying to put a $ range of valuation over DuckDuckGo.
As explained by Nigel Tunnacliffe, founder of Simple409A.com, on Quora:
Based purely on information I was able to gather on the web, my best guess is $20-$30 million. My reasoning is as follows:
In October of last year they raised $3 million. For that, they probably gave up 20-40%, putting their post money value in October at $7.5-$15 million. For the sake of argument let’s say $10m. At that time it was fielding around 300,000 search queries per day, a figure that had been growing at a little over 10% per month for the past year.
In Q4 daily direct queries grew by about 15% per month, and then searches almost doubled in both January and February, starting march with more than 1.5 million direct queries per day.
I imagine the company was valued in October based on a small increase to their monthly growth at that time. If we assume that investment would help stimulate growth to rise from 10% to 15% per month, then by march the company was expecting to be doing 600,000 searches per day. If that were the case, then there would probably been very little change in enterprise value during that time.
However, search volumes increased 4 times faster than was likely expected. I would reasonably estimate that the enterprise value would then have increased accordingly, and could have been around $40 million in March.
With search volume plateauing from May to now (July) I would imaging that any excitement in March would be tempered by summer, and there would be a correction.
I would bet we would see something on the order of a $20-$30 million premoney valuation if they raised another round today or before the next significant value creation event.
The answer was then updated back in 2015:
Direct traffic has grown by >6x since I wrote this answer in January 2013, and the company has hit some major milestones. Given their steady rate of growth, inclusion in major browsers, and the fact that they are reportedly profitable, their valuation is likely 10-20x what it was 2.5 years ago, putting in the $500M range. If it were for sale, an acquiring company might pay double that especially if there are multiple bidders.
However, as of November 2017, over fifteen million daily queries on average went through DuckDuckGo:
In other words, the traffic steadily grew since 2015 by more than twice (back in 10/2015 almost eight million queries on average each day went through DuckDuckGo). In addition, the search engine that doesn’t track you beats milestone after milestone.
In fact, on Monday, November 27th, over twenty-one million direct queries went through DuckDuckGo! Does this kind of growth place the valuation (if the above assumptions turn out to be correct) over the billion dollar mark?
As specified by Nigel Tunnacliffe, founder of Simple409A.com:
I would hesitate to continue applying the same metric for two reasons.
The first is that Alphabet is a much more diversified company than it was in 2013. While it still gets 88% of revenue from it’s advertising businesses (including YouTube), a significant component of it’s value is likely attributed to its other businesses. The cloud business is growing at twice the pace of the ads business, and moonshots like Waymo are could make up as much as 10% of the overall value of Alphabet, despite not having revenue.
The second is that search volume is likely not the best predictor of value this far out, especially based on the implied valuation at it’s last round of funding, which is ancient history. Gut check – is the 7th most popular search engine, with 0.2% market share, worth $1B? I don’t think that’s credible.
In the US, DuckDuckGo seems to be the fourth search engine, with a 0,64% market share:
Source: StatCounter Global Stats – Search Engine Market Share
Just to put things in context, as of December 2017, Google is worth over seven hundred billion dollars:
However, Google (now Alphabet Inc.) is a listed company, which value depends on the dynamics of a stock exchange. While DuckDuckGo is still privately held. Therefore, if and once listed, the Market Capitalization of DuckDuckGo may grow at a much faster pace.
Google vs. DuckDuckGo: Who’s the winner?
Google is a powerful search engine that has a powerhouse at its disposal. In addition, at this stage, we are all biased toward Google. We learned what a search engine is when we googled it. We also discovered a series of search behaviors and formed search habits thanks (or due) to Google.
Therefore, when I do start using DuckDuckGo, after awhile I go back to Google. Switching search engine might be as hard as to stop smoking. Although the analogy isn’t fair (Googling is not as bad for your health as smoking) you got the idea.
Before you adopt something new after using something-else for years. There are only two ways for that to happen in my opinion.
First, you have to be very motivated. Privacy, in this case, can be a great motivational push to make the switch.
Second, the new technology has to be superior to the old one or at least surpass my expectations (the so-called variable reward). While motivation is what drove DuckDuckGo growth. The hybrid engine has still to grow to become as good as Google (personal opinion). Yet this is not something impossible to happen. In fact, if Google has an army of smart engineers, DuckDuckGo can rely on a strong community that believes in open source.
Before you go, I would like to answer the last question that popped into my mind while doing this research. If DuckDuckGo is a search engine, can you optimize for it?
Can you optimize for DuckDuckGo?
If you search around DuckDuckGo communities, you will see there’s no way to optimize for it. Yet this is only in part true. Even though DuckDuckGo takes most of its results from over 400 sources, it is also true that some of those sources can be optimized. In other words, even though you cannot optimize directly for DuckDuckGo, you can optimise indirectly by making your content easier to find from other sources.
For instance, since DuckDuckGo also uses Bing, Yahoo, and Yandex the first thing you can do is to submit your website to those search engines.
Also, links play a crucial role. Therefore, if you’re already implementing a backlink strategy, this will allow you to be also found by DuckDuckGo.
Last but not least, since the sources of DuckDuckGo are more than 400 you could optimise for some of them that work well with your content marketing strategy. For instance, I searched “Who’s Gennaro Cuofano” in DuckDuckGo to see where it was picking up the answers,
The interesting part is that you can use some platforms like Goodreads, LinkedIn, Quora, beBee, Amazon and so forth, to be featured on DuckDuckGo.
Another very interesting aspect is that the second result is a page coming from my website! Yet that is not a standard page. In fact, that page has structured data in the form of JSON-LD. Does DuckDuckGo like structured data? Maybe it does!
You can further explore optimization techniques for DuckDuckGo, in my article for Search Engine People:
Summary and Conclusions
Throughout this story, we saw a few interesting take aways. Some related to entrepreneurs and startuppers. In fact, Gabriel Weinberg taught us that:
you have to experiment a bunch of side projects before finding what you are passionate about
once you’ve found an interesting side project, ask “would I like to be working on this for at least a decade?”
if yes then it is important to start getting traction before you launch. In short, you want to acquire potential users or customers (if that is a paying service) as soon as you have an idea
once launched you can experiment with 19 channels and see what’s best based on the bullseye framework
ask first, what’s possible. Then, what’s probable. Eventually, stick with what’s working
once growth starts to pick up it won’t last forever but it will bring you toward the next stage. At that point, you need to figure out other channels that suit and can fuel the next growth phase
What else? Another crucial aspect is community building. Since the beginning, it is crucial to find people that believe in what you’re doing and can contribute to the growth of your business. For SEOs you learned that there is space to optimise also for DuckDuckGo. And for Growth Hacking teams, you know that ideas testing and experiments are what make companies successful in the long-run.
For anyone interested in technology and the internet, we learned a precious lesson. Often when technologies arrive their impact is so strong that we forget how it was before. Most importantly we forget how it could have been. Take for instance the picture below that tried to predict how the first iPhone would have looked like,
The journalist that wrote the piece remarked how those designs were dead wrong! And in fact, they were compared to the real version of the first iPhone. Yet what this kind of approach misses is the fact that technology does not have to evolve in one way. It can evolve in several ways. While in some cases some technological shapes, tools, and devices take over because more effective over any other. In many other cases, the choice of one shape, or technology over another is culturally, or simply randomly driven.
DuckDuckGo shows us that there’s another possible business model that can work for search engines. In short, it showed us that the future hides many more variables that we think it does. All we have to do is to be open to those possibilities!
Now it’s our turn. Are you ready? Duck it!