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As Google Tinkers with Search, Upstarts Gain Ground

Niche search engines Blekko and DuckDuckGo have exploded in popularity in recent months.

Google’s willingness to tinker with its Web search may be opening a gap for new search engines to fill.

January saw Google launch Search, plus Your World, a service that adds links shared by friends to the results page a user sees, based on activity collected from other Google services such as Google+ and Gmail. February brought news that Google would correlate users’ activity across all its sites, to better target its ads. At about the same time as these controversial changes were implemented, usage of two search startup companies, Blekko and DuckDuckGo, started to climb rapidly, and the two haven’t looked back since.

The two sites still command only a tiny percentage of online searches, but their recent growth suggests they didn’t receive millions from venture capitalists in vain. Both companies make a point of emphasizing their relatively simple design and a commitment to protecting users’ privacy, values some people claim Google has abandoned with its social efforts.

“I believe that there’s an opportunity for multiple new search engines to fragment the market a little bit, and that represents a great opportunity,” says Gabriel Weinberg, who founded DuckDuckGo in 2008 as a side project, but whose company now employs four people full-time and received $3 million in investment funding late last year. “It’s the same as happened with Web browsers. People realized that there was very little choice, and then it fragmented again,” he says, referring to the way that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer lost its dominant position.

Searches on DuckDuckGo grew steadily but slowly since its launch four years ago, particularly amongst the startup community, but after a visual redesign in January they exploded. Between then and early April, usage of the site increased more than threefold, according to the site’s public traffic logs, from 450,000 queries a day to over 1.5 million. Visits have continued to grow since, but at a slower pace.

Blekko, launched in 2010 and now with 42 full-time employees and a total of over $50 million in investment funding, has a similar story. It doesn’t share usage statistics, but according to Compete, which estimates website usage using various indirect sources of information, visits to the site have, since January, charted an upward swing that looks close to exponential. Blekko now has 2.31 million unique users every month, according to Compete, a figure that, although unlikely to be exact, compares impressively with other sites. Blekko is more popular than better-known “Knowledge engine” Wolfram Alpha, for example, which is visited by only 462,000 people a month, according to Compete, and DuckDuckGo, which receives 257,000 visitors monthly. These figures are still tiny compared to Google’s 161 million and Bing’s 122 million monthly unique visitors. Google’s visitors do the most searchers; according to Compete, 65 percent of U.S. Web searches are done on Google and 18 percent on Bing.

Blekko cofounder and CEO Rich Skrenta says that media stories about search in general or about changes made by Google typically correlate with spikes in Blekko’s traffic.

Google’s launch in January of Search, plus Your World, which delivers each person different search results based on the activity of his or her online contacts, is one example. Skrenta says it went against what some users expect of their search engine. “It’s kind of like if we all read a different version of the New York Times every morning.” Skrenta points out that Google added a “hide personal results” button along with those changes, saying “maybe they’re kind of nervous you might want the old view.”

Weinberg says that, by complicating its traditionally sparse design, Google caused people to look elsewhere. “That definitely drove things up for us,” he says. “People reacted to that negatively.”

Google’s new privacy policy, announced in February, also gave the two startups a boost. Both Blekko and DuckDuckGo say they are committed to avoiding personalization and anything that leads to the same query yielding different results for different people. “Two years ago, no one cared if you had a good privacy policy, but privacy has been a big deal more recently. You tell your search engine things you wouldn’t tell your wife or minister,” says Skrenta.

Blekko anonymizes search data after 48 hours, compared to the 18 months that Google retains such information. “If law enforcement show up [with a subpoena], there’s nothing for them to see,” says Skrenta. DuckDuckGo does not collect identifying information such as IP addresses of users at all, so users are always anonymous.

Last month, Google introduced another feature that adds more clutter to its results. But it remains to be seen if this new service, called the “knowledge graph,” which sees fact boxes appear alongside results for some searches, will encourage searchers to look elsewhere.

Blekko’s technology is similar to Google’s, although at a smaller scale. It has 1,500 of its own servers working around the clock to crawl and rank websites and serve results to users. The company tries to aggressively filter out “spammy” pages designed to rank highly on common searches, such as for health or travel, with the aid of users who can help generate lists of sites to exclude from results.

DuckDuckGo gathers very little of its own data. It compiles results by blending data from Yahoo, Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha, and a small amount of Web crawling. Weinberg highlights his “zero-click info” boxes, which sometimes appear at the top of the results list to show facts from Wikipedia and other sources.

Mark Ballard, a senior research analyst with Rimm-Kaufman, where he tracks online marketing and advertising, notes that both search startups started from a low base, making big growth easier to achieve. But he says they have proven that users can be tempted away from Google with the right product. “While we’ve seen Google ramp up their display of ads and move further and further from the ‘ten blue links approach’ [to more complicated search results], Blekko and DuckDuckGo are offering a simpler, less cluttered user experience.”

Both upstarts have recently begun to feature ads alongside their results, although neither company is yet profitable. However, Ballard says, ads sold against search terms are valuable enough that even a small segment of the search market can represent hundreds of millions of dollars. “If they can keep their overhead low, while still producing quality search results quickly, they don’t need to rival Google, or even Bing, in search share, in order to be sustainable enterprises.”

If Skrenta and Weinberg continue to be successful, however, they may eventually face the same temptation Google has had to experiment with its winning formula, Ballard says.

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