Interview with DuckDuckGo Founder Gabriel Weinberg

Many people have tried to challenge Google’s dominance in the search market over the years, ranging from small startups to big-name players. But with the exception of perhaps Microsoft, which has invested billions in its search efforts, all have failed to gain any significant traction.

However, a relative newcomer to the search market, DuckDuckGo isn’t shying away from monumental work. In fact, with a simple, straightforward interface and clean results they have come up with one of the most attractive Google alternatives ever. Even if they’re still far from changing the status quo, their no-nonsense approach to privacy and immediate answers deserves attention.

We had a chance to speak with the site’s creator, Gabriel Weinberg, a few weeks ago. Here’s what they had to say about their four-year-old search engine startup and their competitors.

TechSpot: Tell us a little bit about your professional background and how the idea for a building search engine (of all things) got started.

Gabriel: I joined Internet startups right out of school from MIT in 2000. I started a series of companies that went sideways and then there was a successful one, which was sold in 2006 (No. Note: Gabriel sold to for $10 million). I was in Boston at the time. I moved to Philadelphia and redoed several projects, but there was too much leeway in what I could do, so I started really messing around with things that interested me.

I didn’t set out to do a search engine, but experimented a bit with a few projects I thought would be useful in search, more aggressively identifying spam and removing it from search results, and then improving the results. Using structured content like Wikipedia to create.

About a year later I thought “hey, I can turn this into a search engine.” I decided to package it into something that I could launch and was surprised at the response people were getting, so I decided to really focus on it.

TS: So, initially it was a one-man project?

GW: Yes. I self-financed it and essentially worked on it myself for the first three years.

TS: And how big is the team right now?

GW: We’re five full-time employees and then maybe about 10 part-time people, and then there’s about 10 other contributors… So, it depends how you want to count it, but you can count us like 10 to 15 Huh.

TS: What do you think was DuckDuckGo’s big break?

GW: We’ve really started to grow from the beginning and if you look back, over the past several years we’ve actually had a similar growth rate of about 500% per annum, so I’m encouraged along the way. We really focused on the things that we thought the big search engines weren’t doing very well for various reasons.

This includes removing the spam and structured content stuff I mentioned earlier, as well as real privacy and a cleaner search experience – getting rid of all the clutter and other stuff.

Growing up we improved on these four areas and in late 2010 it seemed they all came together in a way that people started to stick more to. So, I don’t think it was a thing, it was kind of incrementally improving the product to be in such a good place where people would want to use it as their primary search engine.

TS: Looking at the traffic statistics on your site I noticed that there was a huge increase in traffic around Data Privacy Day in January of this year. What happened that day?

GW: We created these two microsites, and, which were actually a few months before that. We wanted to spread them simply because they are educational regarding search privacy. That day someone posted it on reddit and made it to the front page. It stayed there for a while so it probably brought about 250,000 people to that page and increased our traffic.

TS: Tell us a little bit about the technology behind DuckDuckGo.

GW: We are a hybrid engine so we have our own crawler but we also use a bunch of APIs from other sites, both for the link results and the ones we want to focus on, which have immediate answers. Huh.

We use about 100 different sources on our site, including possibly five different indexes – different types of indexes for different things.

What we really try to do when you type a query is find out what category it is (name query, technology product, etc) and route it to that best source and from that best source immediately return answer.

The thesis is that when you type a question, most of the time you’re better served if you get an answer or data from a vertical site like TechSpot for certain things. But people often don’t know what those sites are, so our job is to locate that site and format it at the top.

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