The gift of DuckDuckGo
Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK. — Donald Draper (Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 1)
A few months ago I was in the market for a briefcase bag. I did some research and more or less settled on what worked for me: a modest, sub-$200 bag that met all of my needs and had good reviews. Like most big purchases, I didn’t buy immediately and would think it over for a day or two.
What happened afterward, as everyone by now could guess, is I was bombarded with ads in the following days for similar bags — on Instagram, in my New York Times app, and in my “money-saving” deals app.
Among them were ads for $1000 bags that I would “one day hand down to my children”, who would then hand it down to their children. These heirloom-quality bags, a stark contrast from today’s culture of cheap, throw-away items, would last forever, and with it, my legacy. Happiness.
I could depreciate the bag over 100 years, and it would be a good investment. But let’s face it, tastes change, and the marketing for the next bag could be compelling enough for me to buy another 100-year bag in two or three years. Because at some point what we’re buying isn’t a bag. We’re buying happiness.
But I propose to you that $1000 bags, jackets, and exercise bikes, although they are surely high quality and have added value, do not bring happiness. And wouldn’t it be nice if we could just buy the things we wanted and needed, without having someone constantly trying to sell you “happiness” every time you use your phone?
Then I got to thinking about these targeted ads. As we all know, advertising companies follow every site you visit and every thing you ever Googled and are building a profile of you so they can send you relevant ads. If you go to Google’s website, they make it sound like targeted ads are doing you a favor:
“We use data to make ads more relevant and useful to you”
Relevant and useful to me! Thank you.
You know what, I don’t want ads that are relevant and useful to me! I want to keep more of my money and not spend it on things that marketers have convinced me will bring me happiness. I just want the $200 bag that I found, not the $1000 bag that I now think I and my grandchild need. Give me the non-relevant women’s clothing ad any day. There’s a reason that targeted ads are such a booming business — because they are extremely effective at separating your hard-earned money from you.
That’s when I ditched Chrome and Google and started using Firefox, some anti-tracking browser extensions, and DuckDuckGo. I had heard of DuckDuckGo many years ago (I remember it was what weird, paranoid people used) — a search engine that doesn’t track anything. They also have a mobile browser app that doesn’t track anything or keep your history.
The 11 year old company, backed by Union Square Ventures, handled 1.5 billion search queries last month (about 1/100 of Google) and search query growth is starting to look exponential. They earn revenue by showing ads as search results (similar to Google) based on search terms.
I’ve been cutting out tracking websites and using DuckDuckGo for 3 months now and will probably stay this course for three reasons:
- Privacy. This might not be a concern for some of you. But privacy matters to me and it’s not always for very tangible, easy-to-describe reasons. I don’t want everything I’ve ever searched for to get put into some file, even if it’s harmless today. We have to insist on privacy today because companies and governments will continue to take it away until we collectively draw the line. By that time it could be too late. For those who are pretty apathetic to privacy, I like to ask them: Would you be okay with installing cameras in your home, in your bedroom, in your bathroom, where all the footage is stored in some police repository? They would only view it if there was a domestic violence complaint — otherwise you wouldn’t need to worry, as nobody would watch it. Most people get pretty uncomfortable even though it is theoretically harmless, because it’s creepy. That’s enough of a reason.
- Buy less, save money. I really don’t need more things or “relevant ads” making me think I do. The things I do need, I probably don’t need the $1000 version of (with toilets being a notable exception). I’d love to just save that money and spend it on things that really bring me joy — a vacation to a foreign land, a trek through the jungle or the mountains, or spending time with friends and loved ones.
- Search results that aren’t that bad. This is where I might lose some of you: DuckDuckGo search results are based primarily on non-Google search engines like Yahoo! and Bing. I know. I’m sorry. But in my experience, DuckDuckGo brings me exactly what I’m looking for 95% of the time for searches in English. But the more people that use DuckDuckGo, the better it will be at search. It will get better and better. Plus, is it just me or is Google getting worse and worse? There seems to be a lot of what the DuckDuckGo creator refers to as “low-quality content designed specifically to rank highly in Google’s search index”, which has no use for relevant next-level content that typically isn’t directly searched for but is nonetheless valuable. DuckDuckGo’s algorithm attempts to remove these search results.
I would encourage people to give it a try. For starters (advanced users can do a lot more) you can download the DuckDuckGo browser app on your phone and just drag it to where the Chrome icon used to be. You can make DuckDuckGo your default search engine in Firefox on your computer. Then, sit back and enjoy ads in the wrong language and ads for products totally irrelevant to you. Your privacy, and your bank account, will thank you.