DuckDuckGo hits search milestone as online privacy war escalates

A renewed focus on privacy and concerns about big tech knowing too much about our online habits have propelled DuckDuckGo to a new user milestone, the company says, hitting a search traffic milestone this month. The company – which offers an alternative to Google – hit 102,251,307 search queries on January 11, the first time it had broken through the nine-figure mark.

In 2020, DuckDuckGo saw over 1.5 billion total queries, the company said. Daily searches rose 62-percent last year, something DuckDuckGo credits an increase in awareness about privacy as fueling.

There's been no shortage of that over the past couple of years. Online, tech behemoths like Google, Facebook, and others have been criticized for collecting more data than they necessarily need to, and monetizing users by combining the information gathered into increasingly complex profiles. It's become a significant business opportunity, though one which is at the same time precarious: Apple's moves to make ad network privacy policies more transparent met with fury from Facebook, which argued the changes could undermine its advertising products.

At the same time, however, there's been an uptick in concern about products like smart speakers and other Internet of Things devices entering the home, often with always-listening microphones and persistent data connections. Amazon's Alexa and the new Amazon Sidewalk private networking platform have come under fire from DuckDuckGo before now, with concerns that users are trading too much personal information in return for things like virtual assistant services.

DuckDuckGo launched back in 2008, compiling data from a variety of sources for its search results, but differing from most rivals in the data on users that it gathers. Search logs are kept, but not in a way that's personally-identifiable, while IP addresses and user information are also not stored. Although the company sustains itself predominantly on keyword-based search ads, it says, that history doesn't get collated with other searches you might have made. While not as broadly known as Google, Bing, and other search engines, DuckDuckGo is available on mobile devices too: indeed, it's one of the options that Apple offers as a default on iOS.

"People are coming to us because they want more privacy, and it's generally spreading through word of mouth," Kamyl Bazbaz, VP of communications at DuckDuckGo, told USA Today. "People are looking for alternatives to the surveillance-tech business mode."

It's a timely milestone. Concerns about WhatsApp sharing chat data with Facebook earlier this month drove millions of users to look elsewhere for their messaging needs, with Telegram and Signal both reporting a significant uptick in new registrations. WhatsApp attempted damage control, pointing out that the contentious change in privacy policy only really impacted those using its service to communicate with businesses, but it's unclear if that will be enough to stem the cross-platform messenger tide.