“The problem I have with that kind of lifestyle is that it’s not very family-oriented,” he said. “It’s never been my goal to be Mark Zuckerberg. My goal has always been to do something interesting and unique.”
Weinberg started DuckDuckGo while his wife worked and he captained the house. The company was based at home until last year, when he raised money from Union Square. He is joined at his new office — in the office that looks like a castle — by several coders, one of whom brings his dog, Hex.
DuckDuckGo’s office differs from flashier start-up offices in that there is no fancy Fiji bottled water. Weinberg serves Costco water. “I’ve always been pretty cheap,” he said. “We’re pretty practical around here.”
The model: ‘Stay lean’
Practicality. That’s what Weinberg was after when he started DuckDuckGo. He wanted to build a search engine that people could use quickly and purely. He wanted to focus especially on the first two or three results that users saw, but he didn’t have a lot of manpower to build a search engine from scratch. Weinberg decided to use publicly available search results from Yahoo — which is now fueled by Bing — for the bulk of his searches and use his programming talents to curate the top few links. He wanted those links to provide answers.
Going to Google and typing “calories in a banana” will produce a page of links about bananas. Going to DuckDuckGo and typing “calories in a banana” will produce an answer: 105. The answer comes from WolframAlphra, a computational database that Weinberg linked to DuckDuckGo.
He has linked hundreds of millions of popular searches to other outside data sources, such as Wikipedia and Yelp. Searching for “irritable bowel syndrome” on Google produces three ads as the top three links. The same search on DuckDuckGo produces three links about the disease from Wikipedia.
“If you can control the top three links, you’re actually controlling 80 to 90 percent of searches,” he said.
While Weinberg’s answer system was intentional, his focus on privacy was not. It simply didn’t occur to him that he would ever need to track users. Why? Because his business model would eventually call for serving up just one or two easy-to-miss ads based on the search query, which would generate enough revenue, he thought, to build a nice little business that one day might grab 1 percent of the search market — about five times what he’s got now.
“It’s never been my interest to maximize revenue,” he said. “I like the Craigslist model. Stay lean. Focus on doing what you do well.”
Meanwhile, privacy has bubbled up as an issue online. A recent Pew Research survey found that 65 percent of Internet users see tracking as a “bad thing,” and 73 percent thought it was an invasion of privacy.
“People are starting to get an increasing sense that there are things going on behind the scenes that are not obvious and that they don’t like,” said Aleecia M. McDonald, a privacy researcher and fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.
Weinberg quickly incorporated his site’s trackless virtues into the minimal amount of marketing he does. He paid $7,000 to put up a billboard in San Francisco that features his company’s smiling duck logo and says, “Google tracks you. We don’t.” Clicking on the “about” link on the site’s home page brings users to a link that says, “We don’t track you,” and that brings users to a page that features pictures from Google searches interspersed with this narration in a sort of digital-show-and-tell:
“When you search Google, and click on a link, your search term is usually sent to that site, along with your browser & computer info, which can often uniquely identify you. That’s creepy, but who cares about some random site? Those sites usually have third-party ads, and those third-parties build profiles about you, and that’s why those ads follow you everywhere. That’s creepy too, but who cares about some herpes ads? Your profile can also be sold, and potentially show up in unwanted places, like higher prices and getting insurance.”
Weinberg’s non-ambitious goals make him a particularly odd and dangerous competitor online. He can do almost everything that Google or Bing can’t because it could damage their business models, and if users figure out that they like the DuckDuckGo way better, Weinberg could damage the big boys without even really trying. It’s asymmetrical digital warfare, and his backers at Union Square Ventures say Google is vulnerable.