DuckDuckGo wants to be “the easy button” for internet privacy

This story is part of Digiday’s Masters of Uncertainty series, a look at the people and companies at the center defining media stories. find the rest here.

DuckDuckGo founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg has a reputation for taking the next big step early.

Maybe too soon.

In 2006, when Facebook was an academic curiosity that still hadn’t left campuses, MIT graduate Weinberg sold The Names Database, a kind of proto-social network whose slogan was “Making the World a Smaller place”. to for $10 million.

Weinberg used some of that money to start his current business, DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused tech company that, after years of focusing on its search engine, has begun to expand beyond its core product l ‘last year. Instead of just being a privacy-focused search engine or browser — it also launched a Chrome extension and a mobile browser in 2018 — Weinberg wants DuckDuckGo to become what Weinberg calls “the easy button” for privacy on Internet.

In July, it launched a beta version of Email Protection, an email forwarding product designed to give users some anonymity when signing up for different online services. In November, DuckDuckGo launched a private beta tracker blocker for Android users, which blocks third-party trackers in mobile apps from sending user activity data to sometimes unknown parties.

Both of these products are off to humble beginnings – over 500,000 people are on the Email Protection waitlist and over 200,000 users are on DuckDuckGo’s tracker blocker waitlist. But over time, DuckDuckGo wants to go even further. According to Weinberg’s tally, there are “about 20” areas of modern life that could be wrapped in a layer of privacy-enhancing technology, ranging from payments to chat to phone calls. DuckDuckGo won’t get into all of these areas — “Overall, that’s too much for a company to do,” Weinberg said — but the company sees opportunities to provide that layer of anonymity and peace of mind. mind on several fronts.

“We’re really trying to expand our offering to become more comprehensive,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg and the rest of DuckDuckGo have been waiting a long time for a moment like this to come. But now that it’s here, DuckDuckGo faces an unusual dilemma. After years on the periphery, consumer privacy has burst into the center of the media conversation, thanks to intensifying competition between Apple, Google and Facebook, increased government surveillance and growing consumer awareness. . Adoption of private browsers has started to pick up, and venture capital has also poured in, filling the coffers of companies and consumer-oriented startups.

Consumer mindsets have also shifted towards privacy, but unevenly; a study conducted by Cheetah Digital last spring found that slight majorities of consumers now find digital advertising tactics such as retargeting “scary” rather than “cool”, but barely a fifth of consumers have switched from a digital service to another due to privacy features. This forces DuckDuckGo to both hurry AND wait: to keep pace as it builds a suite of services in a newly crowded field, while waiting for more and more consumers to understand what’s going on and what’s going on. they can do about it.

” We cross [into the mainstream], but most people haven’t heard our name,” said Weinberg, who added that he thinks about half of the US population could be considered part of DuckDuckGo’s target market. “Different people in this group care more about different parts of the experience. Because we offer different things, people may adopt our email first or block the tracker first.

Weinberg launched DuckDuckGo in 2008, a pivotal time in the history of digital media. Google had recently acquired Doubleclick, one of many deals that began to shift digital advertising – and, over time, advertising in general – away from contextual targeting in favor of behavioral targeting, which relies on companies that accumulate the information they collect on individuals.

The ramifications of this change are clear today, but they were by no means obvious back then. “People didn’t get it right away,” Weinberg said. “It was a ‘boil the frog’ kind of thing.”

This lack of awareness, Weinberg said, helped shape the direction of DuckDuckGo, especially when the company eventually decided to seek outside capital.

“When we initially raised funds in 2011, it was like, ‘Are we going to be a research company or a privacy company?'” Weinberg recalls. “We said, ‘We’re going to focus on research until we get the features we need to make this an easy choice. [for consumers]”” Weinberg said.

Nearly a decade later, that focus has paid off – to a point. DuckDuckGo is now the most downloaded mobile browser on Android and the second most downloaded on iOS, surpassing not only established competitors such as Firefox, but also new like-minded offerings including Brave and Neeva.

It is probably the third most popular mobile browser in the US by daily active users, after Chrome and Safari – these browsers, which come pre-installed on hundreds of millions of smartphones, cannot be effectively measured by vendors third-party analytics – and it consistently ranks in the top three search results on keywords such as “search”, “browser” and “private browser” in the App Store and Google Play, according to an analysis data from Apptopia.

DuckDuckGo has also built a sustainable business. It brought in ‘well over $100 million’ in revenue in 2021 – a spokesperson wouldn’t provide a more specific figure — and has been profitable since 2014, largely thanks to a simple arrangement: DuckDuckGo takes the contextual ad impressions created when users search for things, then serves them to advertisers as a publisher within Microsoft’s ad network.

But on the internet, successes are now measured in billions. And compared to other recent digital success stories, DuckDuckGo remains a niche market for both consumers and advertisers.

“I think DuckDuckGo and other privacy-friendly search engines will be something to watch as they become established,” said Mohammed Haque, vice president of research at Mediahub. “They are primed.”

Currently, however, DuckDuckGo’s user base is undifferentiated in the minds of most advertisers. While ad buyers can target specific publishers within Microsoft’s ad network, “that’s not a common request,” Haque said, and there aren’t enough DuckDuckGo users to make it more common. .

Weinberg is largely lenient on this – being profitable helps. And rather than trying to win the wallets of advertisers, he prefers to win the hearts and minds of consumers. To this end, DuckDuckGo spent more money on marketing. DuckDuckGo raised $100 million at the end of 2020, partly to cash in on previous investors and partly to bolster its marketing and lobbying efforts. In the first three quarters of 2021, its traditional ad spend grew more than 80% year over year, to nearly $19 million, according to Kantar. Befitting a privacy-conscious company, it spent less than $1,000 on Facebook ads, according to data from Facebook Ad Library.

He also hopes to work behind the scenes and continue to lobby governments to make things less hospitable for companies – read Google – that rely on behavioral targeting.

“My goal would be to help create the market conditions [that bring back contextual targeting]“, Weinberg said. “The best way to do this is for governments to allow behavioral advertising to be opted out or opted in.

I guess 30-80% will choose contextual…the innovation budget will follow those people. »

This story has been updated. DuckDuckGo’s mobile browser is the most downloaded mobile browser on Android, and not mobile overall; an earlier version referred to Email Protection as Duckmail.

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