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DuckDuckGo founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg has a history of getting to the next big thing early.
Perhaps too soon.
In 2006, when Facebook was a college curiosity that hadn’t yet moved from campuses, Weinberg, an MIT graduate, sold The Names Database, a kind of proto-social network whose motto was “Making the world a smaller place.” to Classmates.com for $10 million.
Weinberg used some of that money to jumpstart his current company, DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused technology company that, after years of focusing on its search engine, began expanding beyond its core product last year. Instead of just being a privacy-first search engine or browser, also launching a Chrome extension and mobile browser in 2018, Weinberg wants DuckDuckGo to become what Weinberg calls “the easy button” for internet privacy. .
In July, it released 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 released a private beta tracker blocker for Android users, which prevents third-party trackers within mobile apps from sending data about users’ activity to sometimes unknown third parties.
Those two products are off to modest starts: over 500,000 people are on the Email Protection waitlist and over 200,000 users are on the DuckDuckGo Tracker Blocker waitlist. But over time, DuckDuckGo wants to go even further. By Weinberg’s count, there are “about 20” areas of modern life that could be wrapped in a layer of privacy-enhancing technology, from payments to chats to phone calls. DuckDuckGo won’t budge on all of those — “Taken together, it’s too much for one company to do,” Weinberg said — 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 comprehensive,” Weinberg said.
Weinberg and the rest of DuckDuckGo waited 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 fringes, consumer privacy has burst into the center of the media conversation, thanks to intensifying competition between Apple, Google and Facebook, heightened government scrutiny and growing consumer awareness. The adoption of private browsers has begun to perk up, and venture capital has also poured in, filling the coffers of startups and consumer-facing ones.
Consumer mindsets have also tilted toward privacy, but unevenly; a study by Cheetah Digital last spring found that a slight majority of consumers now find digital ad tactics “creepy” rather than “cool,” but just a fifth of consumers have switched from one digital service to another due to to privacy features. . That’s forcing DuckDuckGo to both hurry and wait: to keep pace as it builds a suite of services in a newly saturated field, while hoping more and more consumers understand what’s going on and what they can do about it.
“We are crossing [into the mainstream], but most people haven’t heard our name,” Weinberg said, adding that he believes roughly half of the US population could be considered part of DuckDuckGo’s target market. “Different people in that group care more about different parts of the experience. Because we offer different things, people can adopt our email first or block the tracker first.”
Weinberg launched DuckDuckGo in 2008, a quietly seminal period in the history of digital media. Google had recently acquired Doubleclick, one of several deals that began to tilt digital advertising, and eventually advertising in general, away from contextual targeting in favor of behavioral targeting, which relies on companies amassing information that collect on private citizens.
The ramifications of that change are clear today, but they were by no means apparent then. “People didn’t get it right away,” Weinberg said. “It was a kind of ‘frog boil’.”
That awareness gap, Weinberg said, helped shape DuckDuckGo’s approach, particularly when the company ultimately decided to seek outside capital.
“When we initially raised money in 2011, we thought, ‘Are we going to be a search company or a privacy company?’” Weinberg recalled. “We said, ‘We’re going to focus on search until we get the features we need to make this an easy option. [for consumers]'” Weinberg said.
Nearly a decade later, that approach has paid off, to an extent. DuckDuckGo is now the most downloaded mobile browser on Android and the second most downloaded on iOS, beating not only entrenched competitors like Firefox, but also newer, like-minded offerings like Brave and Neeva.
It’s likely the third most popular mobile browser in the United States by daily active users, after Chrome and Safari (those browsers, which come pre-installed on hundreds of millions of smartphones, can’t be effectively measured by service providers). third-party analytics) and routinely ranks in the top three search results for keywords including “search,” “browser,” and “private browser” on the App Store and Google Play, according to an analysis of Apptopia data.
DuckDuckGo has also built a sustainable business. Generated “over $100 million” in revenue in 2021; a spokesman did not provide a more specific figure — and it’s been profitable since 2014, largely thanks to a simple fix: DuckDuckGo takes contextual ad impressions created when users search for things, and then offers them to advertisers as a publisher within the Microsoft ad network.
But on the Internet, hits are now measured in the billions. And relative to other recent digital success stories, DuckDuckGo remains niche, both for consumers and advertisers.
“I think DuckDuckGo and other privacy-safe search engines will be something to watch as they get established,” said Mohammed Haque, senior vice president of search at Mediahub. “They are ready”.
However, as of now, DuckDuckGo’s user base is no different 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 DuckDuckGo users aren’t plentiful enough to make it more common.
Weinberg is largely forgiving about this: being profitable helps. And instead of trying to win the wallet of more advertisers, he would prefer to win the hearts and minds of consumers. To that end, DuckDuckGo has been spending more money on marketing. DuckDuckGo raised $100 million by the end of 2020, partly to raise money from previous investors and partly to bolster its marketing and lobbying efforts. During the first three quarters of 2021, its traditional ad spend jumped more than 80% year over year, to nearly $19 million, according to Kantar. Befitting a company that puts privacy first, it spent less than $1,000 on Facebook ads, according to data from the Facebook Ad Library.
He also hopes to work behind the scenes and continue to increase pressure on governments to make things less hospitable to 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 that can happen is through governments allowing you to opt out or opt out of behavioral advertising.
My guess is that 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, not mobile in general; an earlier version referred to Email Protection as Duckmail.