Turns out the recipe for cooking Google’s goose — or Amazon.com’s, eBay’s, Facebook’s or really any Web giant for that matter — is pretty darn simple.
“Make it like Google,” tech entrepreneur Gabriel Weinberg says, “only simpler.”
Weinberg is founder and CEO of DuckDuckGo, the itty bitty, Valley Forge, Pa.-based search engine that is becoming the business and finance search tool of choice. That, by the way, rewrites entirely the rules of what constitutes a threat to an online business.
See, Weinberg is no heavily financed, Microsoft- or Apple-scale assault on the search market. Even though its backers are A-list investors such as Union Square Ventures, DuckDuckGo has just a $3 million or so war chest. Pocket change, really, for doing battle online.
Nor does Weinberg sit at the helm of an army of coders hacking away at Larry’s and Sergey’s search empire. When I spoke to him on the phone, the remarkably relaxed Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad said he employed “about 10” contractors.
“Honestly,” he says, “it’s really just two of us that do most of the work.”
Scarier yet for the supersize-me Web elite, Weinberg can’t say exactly how his search engine works. He’s not pulling a Jamie Dimon here. He doesn’t really need to know.
“We are not reinventing the search process,” he said. “We use information from other sources like Wikipedia or Wolfram Alpha. I just don’t know how they do it.”
More Go Than Google
What DuckDuckGo does (Weinberg and his wife dreamed up the name up in 2007; he says it has no hidden meaning) is sniff out the best data already on the Web for a given search. Then it rakes out all the unnecessary steps of presenting that information. Separate search pages, found in Google or Bing, are vaporized. Paid links are all but gone — there is exactly one per query. And simple content — say, a popular wiki listing — is displayed right in the initial search results.
But the big plus for investors and businesses increasingly queasy about Google capturing its search data: DuckDuckGo does not track how you use it. It keeps no click records. Buffers no search results. It’s just you and your computer. Weinberg has no interest in looking over your shoulder.
“I thought it was kind of creepy that these engines could have all this search data on you,” he said.
Ducking for Dollars
The overall effect — and the threat to a Web giant such as Google — is remarkable. Using DuckDuckGo almost reinvents the investor Web search experience. Try it. Look up a company — say, Google. You will find a remarkable breakdown of results presented in one long page: The Wikipedia entry, a well-curated list of criticisms of Google, links to online photowikis of company images, all in a clean, clutter-free environment.
Investors will still need Google for stuff such as Web-based word processing, news, or Gmail. DuckDuckGo is strictly search. But tens of millions agree with me that DuckDuckGo is the search weapon of choice: It had more than 30 million direct queries in February for example, with growth in some metrics at 500 percent year-over-year.
Is Weinberg making money? Oh yeah. Remember, there are no salespeople. No tricky local search options. No crazy investments in driverless cars, a la Google. Weinberg simply resells paid search links through established online relationships.
“It’s a standard kind of affiliate deal,” he said. “AOL uses Google search, Yahoo uses the Microsoft ad platform. We’re equivalent to Yahoo in that respect.”
Big Digital Geese Cooked?
The big think on DuckDuckGo therefore goes like this: If a well-organized sole proprietor such as Weinberg can hammer Google on its home search turf, somebody else will surely be able do the same for Google Docs word processing, Blogger, Translate — really any of Google’s products. And, strictly speaking, any service offered by any large vertically integrated Web property — Amazon, Facebook, all of them — is equally at risk.
That in turn questions the basic business strategy of the digital age — that being big and offering lots of products keeps out competitors.
“I have essentially an endless runway,” Weinberg said.
And if Weinberg can do it, others can do it. DuckDuckGo is proving to all of us with skin in the digital game that being a big fat bird on the wire is no longer beautiful.
—By Jonathan Blum, Contributor, TheStreet.com
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