net.wars: Duck amuck

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 23 December 2011

Back in about 1998, a couple of guys looking for funding for their start-up were asked this: How could anyone compete with Yahoo! or Altavista?

Wendy M Grossman

"Ten years ago, we thought we'd love Google forever," a friend said recently. Yes, we did, and now we don't.

It's a year and a bit since I began divorcing Google. Ducking the habit is harder than those "They have no lock-in" financial analysts thought when Google went public: as if habit and adaptation were small things. Easy to switch CTRL-K in Firefox to DuckDuckGo, significantly hard to unlearn ten years of Google's "voice".

When I tell this to Gabriel Weinberg, the guy behind DDG – his recent round of funding lets him add a few people to experiment with different user interfaces and redo DDG's mobile application – he seems to understand. He started DDG, he told The Rise to the Top last year, because of Google's increasing amount of spam. Frustration made him think: for many queries wouldn't searching just and Wikipedia produce better results? Since his first weekend mashing that up, DuckDuckGo has evolved to include over 50 sources.

"When you type in a query there's generally a vertical search engine or data source out there that would best serve your query," he says, "and the hard problem is matching them up based on the limited words you type in." When DDG can make a good guess at identifying such a source – such as, say, the National Institutes of Health – it puts that result at the top. This is a significant hint: now, in DDG searches, I put the site name first, where on Google I put it last. Immediate improvement.

This approach gives Weinberg a new problem, a higher-order version of the Web's broken links: as companies reorganize, change, or go out of business, the APIs he relies on vanish.

Identifying the right source is harder than it sounds, because the long tail of queries require DDG to make assumptions about what's wanted.

"The first 80 percent is easy to capture," Weinberg says. "But the long tail is pretty long."

As Ken Auletta tells it in Googled, the venture capitalist Ram Shriram advised Sergey Brin and Larry Page to sell their technology to Yahoo! or maybe Infoseek. But those companies were not interested: the thinking then was portals and keeping site visitors stuck as long as possible on the pages advertisers were paying for, while Brin and Page wanted to speed visitors away to their desired results. It was only when Shriram heard that, Auletta writes, that he realized that baby Google was disruptive technology. So I ask Weinberg: can he make a similar case for DDG?

"It's disruptive to take people more directly to the source that matters," he says. "We want to get rid of the traditional user interface for specific tasks, such as exploring topics. When you're just researching and wanting to find out about a topic there are some different approaches – kind of like clicking around Wikipedia."

Following one thing to another, without going back to a search engine…sounds like my first view of the Web in 1991. But it also sounds like some friends' notion of after-dinner entertainment, where they start with one word in the dictionary and let it lead them serendipitously from word to word and book to book. Can that strategy lead to new knowledge?

"In the last five to ten years," says Weinberg, "people have made these silos of really good information that didn't exist when the Web first started, so now there's an opportunity to take people through that information." If it's accessible, that is. "Getting access is a challenge," he admits.

There is also the frontier of unstructured data: Google searches the semi-structured Web by imposing a structure on it – its indexes. By contrast, Mike Lynch's Autonomy, which just sold to Hewlett-Packard for £10 billion, uses Bayesian logic to search unstructured data, which is what most companies have.

"We do both," says Weinberg. "We like to use structured data when possible, but a lot of stuff we process is unstructured."

Google is, of course, a moving target. For me, its algorithms and interface are moving in two distinct directions, both frustrating. The first is Wal-Mart: stuff most people want. The second is the personalized filter bubble. I neither want nor trust either. I am more like the scientists Linguamatics serves: its analytic software scans hundreds of journals to find hidden links suggesting new avenues of research.

Anyone entering a category that's as thoroughly dominated by a single company as search is now, is constantly asked: How can you possibly compete with [name]? Weinberg must be sick of being asked about competing with Google. And he'd be right, because it's the wrong question. The right question is, how can he build a sustainable business? He's had some sponsorship while his user numbers are relatively low (currently 7 million searches a month) and, eventually, he's talked about context-based advertising – yet he's also promising little spam and privacy – no tracking. Now, that really would be disruptive.

So here's my bet. I bet that DuckDuckGo outlasts Groupon as a going concern. Merry Christmas.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) (but please turn off HTML).