DuckDuckGo… away

It’s been quite a year for the likes of Facebook and Twitter, among others. They’ve been in the news almost constantly it seems — and for all the wrong reasons. I honestly share a lot of the concerns tech writer Farhad Manjoo has with what he refers to as The Frightful Five, and I recently tried… Truly tried… To use one of the Frightful Five a lot less: Google. It didn’t go well.

Apple doesn’t exactly provide myriad choices of search engine on its iOS devices. Google is the default, and you can also choose Bing, DuckDuckGo, and one other that escapes me at the moment. There’s something that’s just hard to choke-down every time I use Google. There have been plenty of stories in the past year about just how much Google actually knows about you — a dossier that is apparently extensive enough that I’ve been too scared to go look. This report out of Canada is just one of many examples, and such revelations (if they even are revelations) are one reason I decided to use DuckDuckGo on my iOS devices as the search engine of choice. Well, for awhile, anyway.

DuckDuckGo, which for brevity I’ll just now refer to as DDG, promotes itself as the search engine of privacy. It’s a concept I really like and respect. I truly don’t want some faceless corporate behemoth to know that the disgusting looking skin infection I’m searching the internet to learn about is actually on my finger. I don’t need them to understand my sexual proclivities, my social leanings, my political party, or really anything at all about who or what I am, or what’s on my mind. And yet if you think about it, the stuff you Google for, when sum-totaled, is a pretty revealing list of what each of us is all about. It’s a list that’s easily monetized, easily linked from browser to browser, easily connected to our mobile device and the places we travel. Scary shit, to be honest.

So it was against that backdrop of rebellion that I configured my devices to use DDG instead of Google. It’s been about four weeks now. So how did it go?

I’m slowly going back to the faceless corporate behemoth who’s building that dossier about every detail of my life.

Why? That’s easy: DDG doesn’t provide relevant search results as well as Google, and that’s precisely what I discovered when I tried to use Microsoft’s Bing a couple of years ago instead of Google.

Google got to be Google because it does what it does exceptionally well. That’s the same reason Apple got to be Apple, and Facebook got to Facebook. You don’t set-up some crappy web site and become one of the biggest companies in the world by doing a lousy job. And that’s the paradox: How do we wean ourselves away from the evil behemoths, when the evildoers do what they do so damned well?

Honestly, I would encourage everyone reading this blog to try DDG. It’s ready and waiting for you at http://www.duckduckgo.com. Reconfigure your devices and browser defaults. Give it a go. Give it a really, good, hard, sustained go. Do all your queries there. And see if you’re satisfied with the results you’re pulling back. Did you find the stuff you’re looking for? Did it provide options?

The featured image with this post shows what’s displayed in DDG when I search for the name of this blog. Thankfully, the top result is, in fact, this blog. The rest? See for yourself:

Granted, you can clearly see that I have safe search turned off, because I don’t really need a nanny filtering my results. But really? The next most applicable and relevant result is a porn site? And then Walmart’s in fourth position?

Now let’s try that on Google, with safe search also disabled:

Google contextually understands the search query more clearly. Now, this is not the best test — QueryBang is the name of something (this blog), and that should be pretty easy to figure out. When things get more interesting is when you’re digging for specific information.

A recent example: My washing machine stopped working right, throwing an error code on almost every wash cycle. Searching for the error code itself, the suspect part number of the part normally responsible for that code, and searching for a service manual for my particular washing machine — DDG’s results were marginal at best. Google’s results, while also not perfect, provided entry points that were far more useful and relevant. Google also returned a lot more results that I’d call “click bait” — web sites, such as expert for-a-fee Q&A services, where the web site developers have quite clearly figured out how to game Google’s algorithms to float to the top of the first page of results.

So sure, neither search engine is perfect. But Google keeps providing better, more useful, more relevant results. And that unfortunately means I’m feeling its pull… If I have to repeat on Google the search queries I make on DDG, why am I using DDG to start with?

I wish the world had Google without Google’s amazingly scary downside. But we don’t, and DDG isn’t currently an adequate answer. Doing search, doing it really well, and doing it at scale, is not something some dude can do in his basement with an old Windows machine. So I guess for now, I’m back to the big baddy, with its massive infrastructure, its secret algorithms, and its monetization schemes based on all those dossiers.

I’m pretty sure the only reason I’ve not seen ads for local appliance repair companies, at this point, is due to Purify (on iOS) and uBlock Origin (on macOS). Surely Google knows who I am, where I am — and that my washer isn’t working.

And that, indeed, is scary.