When you hear the phrase ‘search engine,’ what’s the first name that pops into your head? For most of us, the answer would be Google. And that’s because for almost two decades now, Google has had more than 90% market share among search engines. Google’s market dominance is such that most people haven’t used or even tried a different search engine.
Even in 2008, when Gabriel Weinberg launched DuckDuckGo, Google had around 90% percent market share? So why did he even bother building an alternative to a search giant like Google? Originally, he had no plans of launching a search engine. All he was trying to do was improve his Google results by implementing features like spam removal and adding instant answers ( Google Search results weren’t as good back then). He also added Wikipedia to the top and included privacy features.
At that time, he wasn’t thinking about DuckDuckGo from a business perspective and just put it out there to see if people would like it. By the end of 2010, his iterative work on the project had made it so much better that people started to switch to DuckDuckGo. The search engine was getting around 59,692 searches a day.
The traction enabled Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo’s founder, to raise $3 million from Union Square Ventures and a few angel investors in 2011. Around the same time, he decided that privacy would be DuckDuckGo’s differentiating factor. This privacy-first approach was and still is, contrary to the popular belief that search engines need to track users and store data to make money (We will discuss why Google tracks users even then below).
After raising money, DuckDuckGo took a dig at Google with a billboard that read, “Google tracks you. We don’t.”
The billboard caught the media’s attention, helping DuckDuckGo increase its user base significantly. Since then, DuckDuckGo user queries have seen positive Year-Over-Year growth due to internal and external events.
Point A on the image represents the “Google tracks you. We don’t” billboard.
Point C represents when whistleblower Edward Snowden blew the whistle on NSA’s & US government’s mass population surveillance and spying.
Point D & E represent when Safari & Firefox included DuckDuckGo as a search engine option.
Point F represents DuckDuckGo launching its Privacy Beyond Search initiative, under which DuckDuckGo offers additional apps and browser extensions to protect people’s privacy beyond its own search engine, wherever they go on the internet.
Even though DuckDuckGo’s user base has grown over the years, it still obviously pales compared to Google. As of March 2022, DuckDuckGo has a market share of 0.69%, while Google dominates the search engine market with a 91.56% market share. While DuckDuckGo gets 98 million daily searches as of March 2022, it pales compared to the 5.6 billion daily searches on Google ( Please note that these are estimated daily searches. Google doesn’t reveal actual numbers ).
In 2021, Gabriel Weinberg revealed that DuckDuckGo’s yearly revenue now exceeded $100 million while Google’s generated revenue of $104 billion from “Search and other,” a term that includes revenue from Google’s search properties and ads on other Google-owned properties like Gmail, Maps and the Google Play app store. Even though we don’t know how much search ads individually contribute to Google’s bottom line, it would be safe to assume that revenue generated from Google’s search ads is significantly higher than the revenue generated by DuckDuckGo.
When it comes to privacy, Google & DuckDuckGo take an opposite stance. While the CEO of DuckDuckGo, Gabriel Weinberg Gabriel says it is a myth that you have to track users to advertise; Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, embraces the idea that Google collects user data without failing to add that it does so to make its services more useful to the average user.
So how does DuckDuckGo makes money without tracking you, and why can’t Google do the same? We’ll see that below when we discuss how DuckDuckGo makes money.
DuckDuckGo Business Model
DuckDuckGo makes money from three sources: keyword-based search advertising & anonymous affiliate partnerships with Amazon & eBay and licensing fee for its tracker radar tool. DuckDuckGo became profitable in 2014, six years after its founding in 2008, and has been profitable ever since without collecting any personal information of people using the search engine.
Let’s look at each of the revenue sources individually to understand them better.
Just like you see ads on Google search, DuckDuckGo also serves users with ads when they type in a search query. For example, if you tell DuckDuckGo you’re looking for a dishwasher, you get dishwasher ads above the organic results.
Every time a user clicks on an ad, DuckDuckGo makes money. This is similar to how Google makes money via Keyword-based search advertising. But the difference lies in the amount of data they collect. The searches you make on DuckDuckGo are kept private, even from DuckDuckGo. Every time you use DuckDuckGo to make a search, it’s like you’re using it for the first time.
On the other hand, Google tracks users’ searches, mines them, and uses the data to create a user profile that allows advertisers to follow you with banner ads on millions of websites and Apps that have signed up on Google’s ad network.
Ever made a Google search and been swamped with similar ads on other websites you visit? Now you know why. To put it simply, here’s how it works: Advertisers pay Google for the ad placements. Google takes a cut and pays the remaining amount to the websites & apps these ads were displayed on. But not only does Google use your search data to make its advertising services better, but it also uses the data to make all Google products more relevant to you.
Here’s an example of how Google’s data collection policies enable them to show you highly relevant searches. Try searching the term ‘restaurants near me’ on both Google and DuckDuckgo. Chances are that Google already knows your exact location and uses that knowledge to give you a result that is relevant to your location. On the other hand, DuckDuckGo comes back with a result that is less relevant since it does not know your location.
Coming back to DuckDuckGo, another difference between Google & DuckDuckGo’s search ads is the underlying ad-buying mechanism. Google has its own ad-buying platform called Google ads which is used by online marketers use to buy search ads.
On the other hand, DuckDuckGo does not have its own ad selling property. It is a Microsoft Yahoo Search Alliance partner. When online marketers buy search ads using Microsoft Bing, they can check an option that allows them to also show ads on search partner websites like DuckDuckGo.
In his interview with Forbes, Gabriel refused to disclose the ad revenue share DuckDuckGo gets from their Microsoft Yahoo Search Alliance partnership, stating it was confidential information.
2. Affiliate Advertising
While DuckDuckGo is able to make a profit solely via search ads, the company keeps looking out for new ways to make money anonymously in order to reduce their dependence on advertising.
Non-tracking affiliate partnerships with Amazon and eBay is the only successful way they’ve found so far, which accounts for a smaller portion of their revenue.
Every time a user visits Amazon or Ebay via DuckDuckGo and makes a purchase, DuckDuckGo receives a small commission.
DuckDuckGo explicitly states that no personally identifiable information is exchanged between them and Amazon or eBay.
3. Tracker Radar Tool
A new initiative launched in 2020, the Tracker Radar is a dataset of hidden tracker employed by big tech giants like Google & Facebook.
The tracker dataset gives information about various collected user data points like a user’s shopping, browsing, location and search history, and is regularly updated with fresh data.
Tracker data information is freely available, but if someone plans to use it commercially, they need to pay a licensing fee to DuckDuckGo.
DuckDuckGo’s Privacy Beyond Search Initiative
On 23rd Jan 2018, DuckDuckGo launched a revamped version of their browser extension and mobile app, extending their privacy protection to wherever you go on the internet. The DuckDuckGo extension is available on all major browsers — Chrome, Firefox & Safari; and the DuckDuckGo App is available on both iOS & Android.
The extension and the app show you a Privacy Grade rating (A-F) based on how a website you’re visiting scores on privacy. You can also dig into the details to discover who is tracking you and learn how DuckDuckGo enhances the underlying website’s privacy measures.
In order to help people understand online privacy better, DuckDuckGo has created a short privacy crash course. You can check it out here.
To extend its suite of privacy products, DuckDuckGo has also been working on a privacy-focussed browser. A beta version of the DuckDuckGo browser for Mac was launched in April 2022. DuckDuckgo had raised $100 million in Dec 2020 from investors like Thrive Capital, a portion of which was to be used for the launch of the DuckDuckGo browser.
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