On an internet where everyone seems to be trying to track your browsing habits for whatever reason (usually to try and sell you stuff), there aren't many companies like DuckDuckGo. The search engine has a big focus on user privacy, while also showing the same results to everyone and avoiding filter bubbles that push people towards content an algorithm thinks they want to see. It's a noble pursuit, but it comes with the downside that DuckDuckGo is not a good search engine. It's really quite terrible, and I've personally described is as like using a version of Google from 15 years ago.
But recently an analyst has suggested Apple should consider buying DuckDuckGo for itself, rather than relying on third party search engines - particularly Google, which currently pays for the privilege of being the default search engine on iOS and Siri devices. I like this idea, because right now DuckDuckGo sucks and a company like Apple, which has money to throw at something like this, could do it a lot of good.
The analyst in question is Toni Sacconaghi from Bernstein, who noted that the only real alternative to Google was Microsoft's Bing. and it would make sense for Apple to have its own search engine. Even though estimates say this deal with Google nets Apple several billion dollars each year. Though the exact amount seems to change depending on who you ask and what year it is.
"Yes, Google is clearly the dominant force in search today. However, we suspect the company's fear of 'rocking the boat' – which could compromise $15 billion in profits it captures today from iOS – may ultimately limit its freedom of action with Apple. Conversely, Apple may be in a stronger position than at first glance, given it controls the keys to the kingdom on who can monetize iOS search. However, it remains uncomfortably dependent on Bing to act as a counterweight to Google--hence our suggestion that Apple acquire its own search engine."
Thinking about this, it surprised me that Apple doesn't have its own search engine already. After all, the past several years has seen it develop its own services to lessen its reliance on Google - Apple Maps being the most prominent.
Having its own search engine would give Apple some leverage in the Google deal, or as Sacconaghi notes it would at least give the company something to fall back on if the worst should happen and Google or Apple decided it didn't want to pay Apple for the privilege of being the default option.
And it makes sense, considering DuckDuckGo's privacy focused mission statement, and the renewed focus on user privacy Apple has been on in recent years. Moreso when you consider the fact DuckDuckGo filters out pages with over-the-top advertising, and lets users turn those adverts off – and Apple is one of the few big tech companies to get behind adblocking with the release of iOS 9.
The big thing here is that DuckDuckGo is a small company, and obviously it can't sink money and other resources into its search engine the same way Google can. So while it can improve over time, it's not going to be able to do so at the same pace. Throw in the backing of a giant parent company, and suddenly things are different. The only problem would be whether Apple would be serious about recouping its investment. Sacconaghi himself admits Apple is unlikely to recoup the billions it makes from the Google deal. That's assuming Apple would suddenly stop taking bids after a hypothetical acquisition.
DuckDuckGo is primarily funded by advertising, but the lack of targeted ads limits that somewhat. And any company that comes in and tries to change that to make more money would be like tearing the heart out of DuckDuckGo - and would be totally counter to the idea that Apple cares about protecting user privacy.
But of course companies do get bought out without the prospect of them ever earning money. Look at WhatsApp, which never made any money and wound up being bought by Facebook in a deal worth $19 billion. Though, given Facebook's track record on use privacy, you can't quite compare it to Apple's outwardly privacy-friendly attitude. Certainly not with its attempts to integrate the service in the wider Facebook ad-targeting web.
But hey, even if DuckDuckGo isn't likely to make much of a difference to Apple's bottom line, the initial investment probably wouldn't be all that much - with Sacconaghi's report suggesting under a billion dollars would be feasible. And at the very least it might be a way to milk more money out of Google and see how serious it is about staying the go-to search engine on iOS. Especially given iOS users do make up a huge chunk of mobile users at any given time.
I want to like DuckDuckGo as it is right now, I really do. I think the fact that the company is so willing to offer a search engine without all the nefarious bullshit attached is fantastic. Because Google has been pretty nefarious for a while, even before they ditched the "don't be evil" policy. The problem is I just can't get over the fact that the search results are so bad.
Maybe I've been spoiled from a lifetime of using Google, and several years of Google not showing up random results based on a single word in the search box. But then again if I have DuckDuckGo set to 'United Kingdom' and am searching for "soil disposal pickup UK" it shouldn't keep pushing me towards a dirt removal company based in Canada. That's the most recent example at the time of writing, though it's far from the only time DuckDuckGo has failed me. It took less than a day for me to get annoyed with the privacy extension for Chrome, because it locks the browser's search engine and I found trying to do any work-based research was damn near impossible.
I still use the privacy browser on my phone for most things, though if I have to access our back-end on the go I do need to use Chrome. Because the login page just doesn't work with DuckDuckGo. Maybe it's an incognito thing, or maybe that particular page just breaks when DuckDuckGo gets involved. Who knows.
Still, when it comes to search, DuckDuckGo currently can't tempt me away from Google. The results just haven't been good enough, and despite Google not refusing to spy on me their results are better. The fact is search is Google's flagship product, and they're going to do whatever they can to keep people using it and adding more dollars to their bank account. And a tiny company with 93 employees can't compete with that, no matter how much we'd like them to.
But with a big player like Apple covering the bills? That'd be a DuckDuckGo I'd really like to see - as much as Apple's general corporate smugness pisses me off. Hell it doesn't even have to be Apple, just as long as it isn't Facebook.