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10 March 2012

My new search engine of choice: DuckDuckGo

Google has been my web search engine of choice for some 15 years. The first time I used it I was overwhelmed by the cleanness of the interface, the lack of advertisements and the quality of the results. Up until then I had a list of 3 or 4 search engines that I used for different purposes, sometimes with not at all satisfactory results, even when combining them together. Google proved to be an able search engine, no mater what thematics, and I joined the ranks of its followers. Ever since I have been consuming many of its other products: I was an early adopter of GoogleMail, of GoogleCalendar (back in the day when it would spread the panic with random service down events) and of Chromium. Though I'm pretty happy with these newer services, it is interesting to note how those characteristics that made me adopt Google unconditionally as a search engine are mostly gone today.

But it wasn't exactly with this mind that I set out to experiment alternative search engines. There has always been this annoying thing about Google: the aggressive white background. Since 2009 my professional career allowed me to drop Winblows for good, now I only use Linux, at home and at work. With Linux one can choose from a plethora of window managers, with innumerate colour schemes each; thus I now use a more user friendly interface, within which the Google white wall really stands out. I experimented with GoogleCustom, but the reality is that the gain in ergonomics is matched by a loss of functionality. Still, I kept relaying on Google.

The tipping point came some weeks ago, when Google performed a fundamental change to its search engine that translates into an important loss of functionality. It is almost unnoticeable, and for most folk may have no impact at all, but to me it was a game changer. Google has stopped presenting URL addresses in its results pages, instead of linking to the respective page, each result now links to Google itself, with an incredible long string that I imagine is used to collect statistics. I wont even go into the privacy questions this may raise, for me a results page that doesn't yield proper URL addresses is simply useless in most cases. After struggling with this issue for weeks, I finally dedicated some time to it and googled for “alternatives to Google”. Minutes later I had a new preferred search engine.

The elected alternative is DuckDuckGo, which has been gaining much praise for its privacy protection ethics. I gave it a try and the first few searches seemed interesting enough to keep using it, in spite of an horrible red and white interface. After a few hours of use at work I decided to explore it a bit further and to my delight I found out that the interface is totally customisable. Immediately I tweaked it to look as close as possible to the famous Gedit Oblivion colour scheme, presently my favourite for programming duties. I am surrendered to the Duck and its pragmatic approach to web search.

After one week of use I can report some interesting things. First of all it's the cleanness of the interface, much leaner and direct; there is at most one add per search, always in the same place, which your brain rapidly learns to ignore. Using DuckDuckGo has made clear the monster Google has become in this regard, though it was one of the main characteristics that fostered its growth, simplicity is now mostly gone from the Google interface. On the main functionality of the search itself, the results are markedly different from those I get at Google, they seem more objective, more to the point. Especially at work this last week felt like I really gained something in using DuckDuckGo, my searches are mostly related to software technology and I seem to get at where I want easier. This may be related to the fact that DuckDuckGo doesn't use filter bubble methods, which are used by Google to tune results for individual users, exposing them to specific websites and advertisements. Google's technology should be an improvement over the old school straight ranking of websites, so why does DuckDuckGo feels better?

Another great feature is the usage of Bang! commands, a smart feature inherited from the Bash command shell, that allows direct searches on specific websites. For instance, by typing !w after your search string the search is directed to Wikipaedia, !yu gets results from YouTube, !gi gets results from GoogleImages, and so on; there are also Bang! commands to search results for specific programming languages or specific commercial services. The list of Bang! commands for DuckDuckGo is incredibly extensive, allowing even searches through other search engines, for instance using a country specific Google site. Once you've got a few commands in your mind, web search acquires a whole new meaning.

On the down side I can only point to its name at this time, it is really awkward, and not even catchy. On the second day of use I had to google for “alternatives to Google” once again because I had forgotten the name. This name is clearly preventing DuckDuckGo from spreading more rapidly and with time will impose some serious marketing issues. From a user standpoint this is fairly seamless though.

In conclusion: if you're in the least concerned with privacy intrusion you should change to DuckDuckGo now. If that isn't much of a worry you should at least give it a try, tuning the interface to your liking, experimenting with Bang! and comparing search results with your search engine of choice. It is likely that you wont change back.