DuckDuckGo – ing To The Dogs

DuckDuckGo New Dark

It was with a tired sense of disillusionment that I stared at the new DuckDuckGo interface a couple of days ago, realising that it was no longer an option, and that this was now, in a word, “it”. I’m not quite sure what it is about companies redesigning websites that don’t need redesigning, scrapping whatever it was that made you like them, and making the user experience worse, but it’s happening all the time. I thought Microsoft would be hard to beat when they turned my favourite email service – Hotmail – into my least favourite – Outlook. But DuckDuckGo have gone one better with the huge update they’ve just made. Or should I say, one worse…

DUCKDUCKGROAN

DuckDuckGo: Please don’t try to do things you can’t do. Don’t try to do Images. You can’t do Images. Putting a very limited selection of photos at the top of a page of text results is not, quote: “Images”. And for some subjects, you can’t find any images at all. It just looks embarrassing. Further, you’re now doing exactly what Google has done to piss off photographers and image copyright holders across the world: you’re hotlinking the photos so users can bypass the source sites and download directly from DuckDuckGo… And this is a site that apparently cares?…

There are privacy implications for the surfer here too. If you’re loading hotlinked images on DuckDuckGo, you must be creating a hit on the source site’s server, and that means the source site potentially has your IP address. Even if DuckDuckGo is not keeping any records of your usage, your browsing could be traced through image host hits, regardless of whether you visit the sites. Given its supposed ‘concern’ about privacy, the least DuckDuckGo should be doing is offering proxying for image loads (like Ixquick and Startpage), or clearly and obviously warning users that they can be tracked when they browse images on DuckDuckGo.

But in the light of this latest update, I don’t believe DDG’s privacy concerns are real anyway. It now comes across as just another website using a gimmick (in this case privacy) to build a userbase. Once it’s built its userbase, does all semblance of “Do No Evil” go straight out of the window, just as with Google? DuckDuckGo can’t be unaware of how angry Google made photographers and image sites when it amended Image Search to cut out the source pages. And indeed, DDG even goes a step worse than Google, placing ads on the Image Search pages. Much as Google has incensed the world of photography, it hasn’t as yet tried to monetise the photos it’s essentially stealing.

DuckDuckGo monetising images
Above: Can DuckDuckGo now be construed as monetising copyright protected images?

A look at the screen grab above, however, shows that DuckDuckGo serves ads on the same page as hotlinked photos. There are also text results beneath the ad, but this could be construed by photographers as using their images, without permission, for profit. Strictly against copyright law, obviously. The main photo in the capture is actually mine, as posted to my Planet Botch site. DDG has not asked permission to bypass my blog and take the image directly to the public, and it certainly has no right to display an ad beneath it. Realistically, I’m not going to approach DDG and make an issue of it – my sensibilities have long since been deadened by Google’s antics. But some photographers will take exception to this, and I think it’s a really scummy move by a site I believed had more conscience.

GOOGLE IN DISGUISE?

There have been a number of shifts in the direction of Google with DuckDuckGo’s May 2014 update, another grim yet predictable one of which has been the introduction of automatic, instant search suggestions.

DuckDuckGo have ranted on about the practice of ‘bubbling’ (enclosing a user inside a ‘bubble’ which limits their search results in accordance with their apparent preferences) and used the “We Don’t Bubble You” boast as a selling point for their search engine. But automatic search suggestions are the thin end of the bubbling wedge, and could in themselves be interpreted as a bubbling technique, since they can undeniably influence a user’s search habits and take him/her to places he/she didn’t originally intend to go. I really can’t see how a company can bemoan Google for learning what it feels a user likes and then focusing on that for preferred search results, when it tries to tell its own users what they want before they’ve even typed in a search term.

WHERE’S THE GOODIES PAGE?

Moving on from all things Google, congratulations to DuckDuckGo on getting rid of the Goodies page… NOT! The Goodies page provided lots of useful routines – one of which I suggested as a solution in my Dealing With Referrer Spam article. In fact, I used the Goodies page more than the actual search engine, so its removal has impacted massively on my use of DDG. It was something other search engines didn’t offer, but now DuckDuckGo have simply traded it for pale imitations of features ALL other search engines have.

DuckDuckGo Goodies Page
Above: The good old days. DuckDuckGo’s Goodies page. Wiped out in the May 2014 update.

CONCLUSION

The problem with appropriating other organisations’ features is that you put yourself more directly in competition with them. DuckDuckGo should understand that they’re not going to topple Google Search, and therefore the only way they can act as a preferred alternative to the big G is to do something different. Making the search engine more like Google is not doing something different.

The truth is that most people only use DuckDuckGo because they dislike Google and its virtual monopoly in the search market. They don’t like the idea of one company gathering information on literally every facet of their lives (through services like Gmail, YouTube, G+, etc.), and pooling it into a profile that not even their own family could build. I advised against using the same brand for both search and email in my 7 Things Most Email Users Do, But Shouldn’t article, and I saw DuckDuckGo as an answer. But I really don’t anymore. I think DDG is heading into territory that will make it so similar to Google, that people just end up thinking: I might as well just use Google, because it’s a better search engine, with better and more features, and if DuckDuckGo is not going to take integrity and privacy seriously, what’s actually the point of it?

Startpage is not perfect, but I believe it’s now a much better choice for the privacy conscious surfer than DuckDuckGo. I’ve just cleared DuckDuckGo from the homepage slot in two browsers. That should serve as a fair indication of what I think of the update.

  Author: Bob Leggitt

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