Duck Duck Go, the search engine that has sworn an oath on all that is holy and good never to track you or save any of your personal information in any way, shape or form, is capitalizing on its post-NSA surveillance debacle popularity. This week Duck Duck Go released a "Search & Stories" app for the iOS platform. (An Android Duck Duck Go app has existed since 2011.)
The new app is an odd bird. It includes the basic search functionality that we require from a search engine, but then layers a rudimentary story recommendation service on top. Just now, Duck Duck Go suggested a short news squib about a two-headed turtle named Thelma and Louise, a Wall Street Journal article warning against letting your children grow up to be tennis pros, and a story about Indiana basketball player Victor Oladipo wearing Google Glass to the NBA draft.
In an announcement of the new app, Duck Duck Go declared that the stories had "proven social value" and were generated by "by leveraging hand-selected, crowd-sourced, curated feeds." As explained by Duck Duck Go founder Gabriel Weinberg, what that basically means is that Duck Duck Go scoops up stories that reach the top of "most emailed" or "most shared" lists at sites like Reddit or the WSJ or Business Insider.
Obviously, these stories have nothing to do with your interests or preferences, because Duck Duck Go scrupulously avoids gathering any information about what those might be. The furthest Duck Duck Go will head in such an intrusive direction is to feature one or two advertisements that are linked to your search keywords.
I found myself wrestling with this concept. While I understand the attraction of a search engine that bases its appeal on fighting back against the Panopticon, there is something a little odd about being presented with essentially random stories when I am in pursuit of specific information. One could argue that it's unnecessarily distracting. I wanted information on gas range pricing and suddenly I'm contemplating a two-headed turtle. What was I here for again?
Weinberg says Duck Duck Go added stories to help drive more traffic to the app.
"People don't generally open search apps, even if they are great," says Weinberg. "That's because the search integration on the phone is so easy already. So you need something compelling bringing you back day by day... When you have a few free minutes, you open up the app and always find something interesting."
Maybe so, but one of the fundamental attractions of Duck Duck Go, in addition to its privacy protection attributes, has always been its stripped-down, all-business, nothing-but-the-search-results design. And if I'm looking for something to read, my first preference would probably be to head to a site like Feedly, where I will see stories tailored to my interests.
But that's a minor quibble. If you're an iOS user looking for a search engine alternative that keeps its nose out of your business, now you have one. And there's something very sweet about the modesty of Weinberg's ambitions that make rooting for Duck Duck Go attractive. In 2012 he told the Washington Post that his goal was to build a business just big enough to cut out a tiny slice of the overall search market -- just enough to keep a decent revenue stream flowing.
“It’s never been my interest to maximize revenue,” he told the Post. “I like the Craigslist model. Stay lean. Focus on doing what you do well.”