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DuckDuckGo founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg has a track record of hitting the next big thing early.
Maybe too early.
In 2006, when Facebook sparked a college curiosity that had not yet moved off campus, Weinberg, an MIT graduate, sold The Names Database, a type of initial social network whose tagline was “Make the World a Smaller Place,” to Classmates .com for $10 million.
Weinberg used some of that money to start his current venture, DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused tech company that, after years of focusing on its own search engine, began expanding beyond its core product last year. Rather than just being a privacy-based search engine or browser — it also launched a Chrome extension and mobile browser in 2018 — Weinberg wants DuckDuckGo to become what Weinberg calls the “easy button” for online privacy.
In July, it launched a beta version of Email Protection, a mail forwarding product designed to give users some anonymity when they sign up for various online services. In November, DuckDuckGo launched a tracking blocker tool in private beta for Android users, which prevents third-party trackers within mobile apps from sending data about users’ activity to sometimes unknown parties.
These two products have been discontinued to humble beginnings—more than 500,000 people are in the email protection queue, and over 200,000 users are queued to block DuckDuckGo’s tracker. But over time, DuckDuckGo wants to go even further. According to Weinberg’s count, there are “about 20” areas of modern life that can be wrapped in a layer of privacy-enhancing technology, ranging from payments to chatting and phone calls. DuckDuckGo won’t go over all of those — “all in all, it’s too much for one company” — but the company sees opportunities to provide that layer of anonymity and peace of mind on several fronts.
“We’re really trying to expand our offering to be more inclusive,” Weinberg said.
Weinberg and the rest of DuckDuckGo have waited a long time for such a moment to arrive. But now that DuckDuckGo is here, DuckDuckGo faces an unusual predicament. After years on the sidelines, consumer privacy has stormed the center of the media conversation, thanks to fierce competition between Apple, Google and Facebook, increased government censorship and increased consumer awareness. The use of the private browser is beginning to pick up, and venture capital is flowing as well, to fill the coffers of both start-ups and consumer-facing companies.
Consumer mindsets tend toward privacy as well, but in an uneven way; A study by Cheetah Digital last spring found that a slight majority of consumers now find digital advertising tactics like retargeting “creepy” rather than “cool,” but barely a fifth of consumers switched from one digital service to another due to privacy features. This forces DuckDuckGo to hurry up and wait: to keep pace as it builds a suite of services in a newly crowded field, while also waiting for more and more consumers to understand what’s going on and what they can do about it.
“We’re crossing [into the mainstream]but most people haven’t heard of our name,” said Weinberg, who added that he believes about half of the US population can be considered part of DuckDuckGo’s target market. Different people in that group are more interested in different parts of the experience. People approve our email first, or block the tracker first.”
Weinberg launched DuckDuckGo in 2008, a quietly pivotal period in the history of digital media. Google recently acquired Doubleclick, one of several deals that has begun to tilt digital advertising — and over time, advertising in general — away from content targeting in favor of behavioral targeting, which relies on companies storing the information they collect on private citizens.
The implications of this shift are clear today, but they were by no means obvious at the time. “People didn’t immediately understand it,” Weinberg said. It was a kind of ‘frog boiling’.
Weinberg said this awareness gap helped shape DuckDuckGo’s focus, particularly when the company eventually decided to seek outside capital.
“When we initially raised the money in 2011, it was like, ‘Are we going to be a search company or a privacy company? “We said, ‘We’ll focus on research until we have the features we need to make this an easy choice.’” [for consumers]Weinberg said.
After nearly a decade, that focus has paid off — to some extent. DuckDuckGo is now the most downloaded mobile browser on Android, and the second most downloaded browser on iOS, surpassing not only established competitors like Firefox but also newer like-minded offerings including Brave and Neeva.
Possibly 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 quantified by third-party analytics providers – It routinely ranks in the top three search results on keywords including “search,” “browser” and “private browser” in the App Store and Google Play, according to Apptopia data analysis.
DuckDuckGo has also built a sustainable business. It brought in “more than $100 million” in revenue in 2021 – spokesperson won’t give a more specific figure — and it’s been profitable since 2014, thanks in large part to a simple arrangement: DuckDuckGo takes contextual ad impressions created when users search for things, and then shows them to advertisers as a publisher within the Microsoft ad network.
But on the Internet, successes are now measured in the billions. For other recent digital success stories, DuckDuckGo remains somewhat of a niche, both for consumers and for advertisers.
“I think DuckDuckGo and other privacy-safe search engines will be something to watch as they establish themselves,” said Mohamed Haq, Vice President of Research at Mediahub. “They are ready.”
So far, though, DuckDuckGo’s user base hasn’t been featured in most advertisers’ minds. While ad buyers can target specific publishers within the Microsoft ad network, Haque said “this is not a common request,” and users of DuckDuckGo aren’t abundant enough to make it more popular.
Weinberg is pretty upfront about this – being helpful handy. Rather than trying to win over advertisers’ wallets, he prefers to win the hearts and minds of consumers. To that end, DuckDuckGo has spent more money on marketing. DuckDuckGo raised $100 million at the end of 2020, partly to raise money from previous investors and partly to bolster marketing and lobbying efforts. During the first three quarters of 2021, its traditional ad spend rose more than 80% year over year, to nearly $19 million, according to Kantar. Fitting the privacy first company, it has spent less than $1,000 on Facebook ads, according to data from the Facebook Ad Library.
It also hopes to work behind the scenes, continuing to ramp up pressure on governments to make things less welcoming for businesses – read Google – that rely on behavioral targeting.
“My goal will be to help create market conditions [that bring back contextual targeting]Weinberg said. “The best way this could happen is by allowing governments to opt out or opt-in to behavioral advertising.
I think 30-80% will choose the context … and the innovation budget will follow these people.”
This story has been updated. DuckDuckGo mobile browser is the most downloaded mobile browser on Android, not on mobile in general; An earlier version referred to email protection as Duckmail.