How Does DuckDuckGo Work?

How Does DuckDuckGo Work?


Do you sometimes feel as though Big Brother is watching you? Have you felt the discomfiture that leaves you wondering How did they know that? after an ad pops onto your screen following an unrelated search? And yet, you recognize the ad as related to something you previously searched for….on a different device!?

The biggest online players are tracking your every move, literally. Your search choices, your purchasing choices, your GPS-tracked movements, your email history. Where can you go to be alone and unobserved? Where can you maintain your privacy and anonymity on the web?

DuckDuckGo is a search engine that promises complete browsing privacy. They don’t track you nor your search history. They don’t give your information to the sites you visit.

What Kind of Privacy?

Corporations are eager to know who you are, what your habits are and where you might be encouraged to spend more. As the adage goes, follow the money.

Where there is personal data collected, there is money to be made. Imagine if every store you walked into knew vast amounts of personal data about you, and also collectively compiled that data instantaneously with every other customer who shopped there. What if they could cross-examine the personal data resulting from your purchase transaction with the things you might have only thought about purchasing? What if they were so well informed about your tendencies, your history and your personal data that they could predict what you might want….even before you knew you wanted it?

This isn’t the far-off future. It is the here-and-now.

Although there are many ways for corporations (and governments) to track you and your data online, there are a couple of overarching tools that make the whole data harvesting web frighteningly vast: your IP address and your browser choice.

When you search for something online, you choose a search engine. Google is the choice of billions, literally. Google is so big, we gave it a brand-new English verb (googled) and we think it is on par with a utility in terms of its necessity. Could we function for a day without it, we wonder?

And, when you google, you use your computer or mobile device. They are traceable by their IP address.

So, the combination of what tools you used to search with and what you searched creates a powerfully lucrative amount of information for those wanting to sell you something. Google, for example, is happy to provide access to this information in several different ways. And, even if you arrive at a website from another browser, the alternative providers are also happy to make sure your data is available as an underpinning of their financial model.

Except for DuckDuckGo. They are the outlier.

Think of how unique Wikipedia is. Who else rivals Wikipedia as a repository of quick, concise and (usually) reliable information? DuckDuckGo is to browsers what Wikipedia is to the consolidation of reference data. They are the outliers.

No, Wikipedia doesn’t deal in market dollars, so it isn’t trying to track you, and privacy isn’t relevant to its outlier status. (But, if you end up on a Wikipedia page because of a Google or Bing search, you will be tracked.) For those who want to evade online tracking, the answer is to browse with DuckDuckGo.

Tor and the Technicalities

Tor Browser
How does DuckDuckGo achieve the privacy it promises?

There are a variety of ways, but let’s summarize DuckDuckGo’s motivation by saying that the desire for financial gain has been removed from the core purpose of the service. Privacy is DuckDuckGo’s core purpose. We’ll explain DuckDuckGo’s revenue structure later, but it’s clear that DuckDuckGo values privacy in a browser and that the marketplace has enough users who are concerned about their privacy to make DuckDuckGo viable since its founding in 2008.

From a technical point-of-view, DuckDuckGo employs redirection of your web searches through a service known as “Tor.” Tor is actually an acronym for “The Onion Router” and it is open-source software that creates communications (traffic) between computers that is untraceable. This anonymous routing uses a vast number of worldwide relays that end up scrubbing traffic of identifiable information, such as an IP address. Tor’s basic purpose is to protect a web user’s privacy and anonymity.

So, DuckDuckGo routes through Tor and results in end-to-end anonymity for all of its search activity. In fact, with DuckDuckGo’s optional homepage encryption feature enabled, searches using DuckDuckGo are entirely anonymous. The founder of DuckDuckGo, Gabriel Weinberg, has said they “protect your search data even from yourself.”

For those wanting an in-depth version of the techniques used to achieve total online privacy, further investigations of Tor and its compatibility with VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) might be interesting. VPNs obscure IP addresses through rerouting and can be used in combination with Tor and DuckDuckGo’s search engine technology. VPNs are accessible from a variety of suppliers, as PinpointVPN summarizes. Although not necessary for DuckDuckGo use, VPNs like PureVPN and Surfshark VPN can provide an additional layer of online security.

DuckDuckGo’s search engine uses an in-house accumulation of sources to provide you with the relevant answers you are looking for. We’ll talk more about what sources are used further on, but it’s likely helpful to point out that the ability to provide privacy with assurance occurs because of DuckDuckGo’s in-house coding.

How it Works

Google Search
DuckDuckGo is a search engine like Google or Bing. You can use it when you want to research something online, whether on your computer or smartphone.

When you query keywords with DuckDuckGo, the proprietary search software promptly delivers top answers, similar to how Google will give you a list of web pages based on your keyword search. DuckDuckGo uses a pool of over 400 online sources (including Yahoo! and Bing….yes, we know, it gets a bit confusing here, but stick with us), plus Wikipedia, crowdsourced sites and its own native crawler. (A crawler searches online, across all web pages, assessing the mass volume of specific references for quick retrieval when queried.)

DuckDuckGo processes the results of its searches through filters to remove any websites that are considered low quality (i.e., content mass published online with the purpose of featuring high in a search engine’s results as a means to promote clicks and sales). DuckDuckGo also ignores websites that have what it considers excessive advertising.

The essence of the quality of DuckDuckGo searches is producing a search result that is without bias. The result is not based on your browsing, purchasing, identity or IP history. The result is “fresh” and applies to the available resources at the time based on the keywords searched. Simple and devoid of the attempt, by large data compilers and marketers, to guess what they think you might be willing to buy next in their opportunistic ways of prediction and luring presentation.

DuckDuckGo does tailor your searches to your location (so you don’t get the Chinese takeout options from the southeast US when you are searching in NYC), but the location data is immediately deleted and is not archived. Even before deletion, localization (as the process of web-based geographic pinpointing is referred to) is already fairly anonymous due to DuckDuckGo’s automatic routing through Tor.

Follow the Money

Microsoft Bing
You might be wondering how DuckDuckGo survives. If it is dedicated to privacy as a core business value, how does it make money? Or is it a non-profit, like Wikipedia?

DuckDuckGo is a business. It’s a ‘little engine that could’ compared to the industry giant Google. But it’s growing. And it has always grown, year to year.

Recently, DuckDuckGo had average daily traffic of just under 100 million searches. That’s a notable share of overall search queries, and DuckDuckGo is listed as a ‘default search engine’ option by Chrome.

DuckDuckGo earns revenue through ads based on keyword searches. This is different than the revenue model of other search engines, where searcher IP details can be part of revenue generation. For DuckDuckGo and its advertising and affiliate partners (Yahoo-Bing, Amazon, eBay), tailoring of ads is limited to the real-time keywords of the current search. This is a non-predictive and unbiased approach to anticipating (and selling) what a web searcher might need or want. Think of it as ‘advertising lite.’

Persistence Pays Off

DuckDuckGo’s ability to survive in shark-infested waters and even to grow and thrive is due to determination and focus. While the lure of revenue sources and the proliferation of selling power through data accumulation has raged, DuckDuckGo has faithfully stuck to its pledge of user privacy.

There are more and more of us who are concerned about our online safety and the protection of our data. Data can become so much more than simply an innocent snapshot of who we are and what we do. We are concerned that our attempts to find information online are being obscured by the bias of algorithms designed to predict our wants and needs. Fortunately, DuckDuckGo provides an oasis of anonymity and protection in the wild world Web.


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