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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

New Search Engine Tries Billboard Advertising

Most Internet startups turn their nose up at conventional marketing.

  • January 27, 2011

Google is famous for having for many years eschewed advertising its existence, relying solely on word of mouth. Given the voracity of the countless websites devoted to tracking every new startup on the Web, the countless millions spent on making sites and apps viral in the first place, etc., advertising your presence to the world seems almost quaint.

courtesy Gabriel Weinberg

Gabriel Weinberg, founder of search engine Duck Duck Go, thought he’d try it anyway. The result is a billboard on the San Francisco Oakland Bay bridge, staring down morning commuters on their way into possibly the most Web-centric city on the planet.

Full disclosure: I reviewed an early draft of the website associated with Weinberg’s billboard, DontTrack.us, and suggested a few changes. Why? Because regardless of my opinion of his search engine (I don’t use it; sometimes I feel like I should) I thought he had a point: Google has more of our information than ever, and there are countless ways it could leak out, whether or not the company ever violates its dictum, “Don’t Be Evil.”

Whether or not this somewhat unconventional approach will work – if Duck Duck Go were really all that, wouldn’t it simply spread by word of mouth? – remains to be seen. One of the uphill battles that Weinberg faces in maintaining and promoting DDG is that its benefits are invisible. This is a search engine I’ve covered in detail before – it is characterized primarily by what it doesn’t do: it goes to lengths to not track you, not even to store your IP address or any other identifying information.

Using Duck Duck Go requires an act of imagination. Instead of every search you perform on it spawning a million bits of detritus for advertisers to hoover up and exploit (surely you’ve noticed of late that ads for products you’ve been eyeing have begun following you across Google, Gmail and Youtube?) or, potentially, for governments to subpoena, Duck Duck Go stares at you with its unblinking eye and sees… nothing.

Users pass through the site like a neutrino. No one is paying for the service in ways they didn’t anticipate or might not be entirely comfortable with if they were explained in detail. Just like the good old days of the Internet.

Can a search engine for hackers, conspiracy theorists, paranoids and nostalgics succeed? That depends on whether or not the dangers of comprehensive tracking become more apparent. Honestly, I hope we never arrive at that place: It would mean someone screwed up, or a government agency went rogue, or a hacked ad server became an agent of identity theft. Which means Duck Duck Go is, in its own way, a hedge against a future far darker than any suggested by the primary colors and cheery doodles of Google’s home page.

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