Two years ago, a billboard appeared along a busy highway in San Francisco, advertising an obscure online company from Paoli, in Delaware County. A cartoonish duck with bright blue eyes, a yellow beak and a red bow tie quacked a pithy barb at its rival: “Google tracks you. We don’t.”
Six months later, that Paoli-based search engine, DuckDuckGo, had doubled its traffic to eight million searches a month, then scaled up to 40 million by mid-year 2012. Over a fortnight this June, as Edward Snowden unraveled his NSA surveillance leaks, it nearly doubled again—with traffic spiking 90 percent. “Online privacy is not dead,” says Gabriel Weinberg, the CEO and founder of DuckDuckGo. “People just don’t know what to do about it. Events like the NSA thing help give them a nudge.”
With global paranoia squarely set on online privacy, droves of people are retreating to DuckDuckGo. Its search engine promises never to store users’ personal data or IP addresses, nor does it allow third-parties onto its results page. So if the NSA comes knocking on Weinberg’s door, clutching a FISA letter in hand, he has nothing for it to scoop up. “Not tracking people is core to what we do,” Weinberg says. “But that doesn’t require any additional technical energy, so our focus is actually on improving results.”
DuckDuckGo might never achieve Google’s ubiquity, but its momentum is strong. When Weinberg purchased his $7,000 anti-Google billboard, he was the sole employee. Now his traffic is close to 100 million searches per month—approaching one percent of the market—and he’s expanded to 20 workers and moved into a castle-like office on the Main Line. Does that mean the duck will eventually challenge Google? Well, just don’t ask Jeeves or AltaVista.
This story originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.