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How DuckDuckGo Rode A Wave Of Post-Snowden Anxiety To Massive Growth

Two years after the NSA surveillance story broke, DuckDuckGo hasn't stopped growing.

[Photo: Flickr user Pixishared]

When it first launched, DuckDuckGo seemed like it couldn't possibly be serious. A tiny, Philadelphia-based search engine going up against Google? Indeed, its early growth was glacial, despite offering itself as a less invasive search engine that doesn't track your online behavior. But then history intervened: Two years ago, Edward Snowden blew the whistle on NSA spying and American attitudes about privacy shifted. DuckDuckGo been exploding ever since.

Over the last two years, DuckDuckGo's daily search queries have grown 600%, CEO Gabriel Weinberg told CNBC recently. The privacy-focused search engine is now on track to hit 10 million daily queries for the first time, a milestone that it could hit as early as next week. This follows two solid years of dramatic, upward growth on DuckDuckGo's traffic charts. And not coincidentally, it comes at a time when public concerns about digital privacy are high.

Last month, a survey from the Pew Research Center revealed that 40% of U.S. adults don't want their search engine provider to retain any information about them at all. Fortunately for Weinberg, that's precisely the concept he was going for when he launched DuckDuckGo back in 2008.

"People are finally becoming aware of all the downsides of online tracking, including surveillance, ads following you around the Internet, and being charged different prices based on your profile," Weinberg told Fast Company. "If you can get both a great experience and privacy at the same time, then it's really a no-brainer to switch to a private alternative and prevent yourself from being tracked."

The premise of DuckDuckGo is simple: It doesn't track your searches or any other online activity. Whereas Google has built a $66 billion dollar-a-year business around knowing more and more about its users' every click, tap, and scroll, DuckDuckGo prefers ignorance. It doesn't have user logins, it doesn't log your search history or IP address. Even if they wanted to hand over data about your search history, they couldn't. That data just doesn't exist.

Instead of profiting from heaps of user data, DuckDuckGo has opted for a simpler business model: Old-school search ads that pair the keywords in people's queries with relevant ads placed by the highest bidder. Weinberg says the company also makes money from affiliate links to sites like Amazon and eBay.

For DuckDuckGo, this huge increase in search volume has led to a corresponding jump in revenue, which has enabled the company to hire new people. Since the beginning of 2014, DuckDuckGo's head count has doubled, today totaling 28 full-time equivalent employees, most of whom work remotely outside of the company's headquarters in suburban Philadelphia. All of DuckDuckGo's employees are hired from the existing community of the search engine's developers and contributors, a factor Weinberg attributes to a very low turnover rate.

Concerns about search privacy are at least as old as Google. But until 2013, such anxieties were not mainstream enough to move the needle for a service like DuckDuckGo. That started to change two summers ago when the name Edward Snowden first landed in headlines. Snowden famously revealed, among other things, the extent to which the NSA's PRISM program was authorized to suck up and store user communications from a number of major U.S. tech companies, including Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.

Since PRISM was revealed, the U.S. tech sector has taken a hit as U.S. consumers have grown more conscious of their digital privacy. Meanwhile, foreign companies are going out of their way to avoid working with U.S. firms tied to PRISM whenever possible. All told, the scandal is expect to cost the U.S. tech industry as much as $35 billion.

Heightened awareness of digital privacy may be the underlying fuel powering DuckDuckGo's growth, but it's not the only factor. Last year, the company landed crucial integration deals with Apple and Mozilla, which made DuckDuckGo available as a default search option alongside the likes of Google and Bing. While Weinberg won't share specific numbers, he says that DuckDuckGo's inclusion as a default search option in Firefox and Safari (on both Mac OS X Yosemite and iOS 8) have "made it much easier to use DuckDuckGo and search anonymously across all your devices."

The site also underwent a substantial redesign last year, which its engineers and designers attribute to a stickier, more engaging experience. Meanwhile, they've slowly been improving the underlying framework of how DuckDuckGo fetches and returns results, focusing in large part on the query-specific "instant answers" that appear prominently above the traditional list of links. These results, which are largely developed and fine-tuned by DuckDuckGo users, have long been a key differentiating factor in the eyes of the company, even as Google has started to emulate the concept. Next on the company's agenda is a significant update to the tools used by the open source community that contributes Instant Answers and data sources to its search results.

As dramatic as DuckDuckGo's growth has been, it still retains only a very tiny share of the search market, of which Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo collectively make up more than 90%. Still, it's notable that DuckDuckGo has slowly inched its way toward the mainstream based primarily on word of mouth. If it wants to get serious about competing in the search space, this tiny startup is going to need to step up its game—and its income—pretty aggressively. But for now, Weinberg seems content to occupy this tiny corner of the market as he watches the tide of public attitude turn in his favor.