A little while back I covered the rise of DuckDuckGo, the internet’s pro-privacy search engine. The Duck has been around for a while, but really took off after Edward Snowden leaked the NSA’s surveillance of American citizens. DuckDuckGo’s promise to its users is that it doesn’t collect any personal data (including search history and location) so it can’t turn it over to advertisers or the government. This approach is so powerful that the search engine has been blocked in China.
But DuckDuckGo is making changes. Appealing to the pro-privacy crowd only gets a startup so far. To steal users from Google, Yahoo and Bing they also have to provide a good users experience. That’s tricky, since much of the convenience of the big search engines is based on—you guessed it—personal data. So, while maintaining its commitment to privacy, the Duck is rolling out new features that try to put it on a level with its competitors.
The most recent of those rollouts is an expanded autocomplete feature announced last week. In 34 countries, including the US, users typing queries into DuckDuckGo will see a list of search suggestions. That’s old hat on other search engines, and it saves time for users. Often, you’ll see the search query you want after typing only a few letters.
Of course, the feature also raises questions: how does DuckDuckGo know the most popular search terms if it doesn’t track user data? Their team foresaw this question and linked to a handy FAQ right in the autocomplete announcement. From their answer:
“To be clear, we don’t collect or share personal information and auto-suggest does not impact that at all. We simply do not associate queries with personal information (e.g. IP addresses) and in fact don’t store any of it at all…”
That’s fair. It sounds like the Duck will never know that you searched for “edible socks,” but they know how many people ran that search. Without your IP, they can never reveal who the embarrassed searcher was, even if ordered to by the government.
However, I can see this being confusing for user. (DuckDuckGo obviously thinks so too, or they wouldn’t have linked an explanation in the announcement.) After all, it means that the Duck is still gathering search usage data in aggregate, just not with individual identifiers. That’s a fine line if you’re not a technical type.
At the same time, DuckDuckGo will only feel pressure to roll out more features like this. Their no-IP autocomplete will never be as helpful as Google’s, since it doesn’t remember what you searched for a week ago nor what other people in your neighborhood are searching for. But it’s still a convenient feature, and users tend to favor convenience over just about everything else. That’s the whole reason privacy has been on the auctioning block for the last 15 years.
The ideal balance for DuckDuckGo would be enough convenience to capture new users, but enough privacy not to alienate their base. So far they’ve done a good job of it. Whether they’ll be able to keep that balance going long term, well, that’s a fuck