4 Feb. 2022
Today was a big day in my internet life. Today was the day I stopped using DuckDuckGo. This is a big moment for me as I have been using DDG as my primary search engine for the past twelve years or so. I say primary, not exclusive, because of course I regularly had to use Google to find something specific, but I’d say that 95% of my search requests went through DuckDuckGo; until today.
As much as I am a fan of the whole privacy-first approach of DDG, the brand itself, and the content they publish, the sad truth is that the search engine hasn’t improved in the last couple of years. During the first years, I could identify the regular improvements, the regular refinements of the quality of the search results that made the overall experience increasingly better. But this feeling has disappeared for quite a long time.
It is not easy to judge the quality of a search result page because it depends on so many little things: the topic itself, the keywords you entered, what you’re looking for exactly, etc. DuckDuckGo generally provided me with good results, and even if the quality didn’t improve as much as it did in the early years, it was never really bad enough so that I would stop using it altogether.
DuckDuckGo gained a lot of traction in the past couple of years, and I believe they absolutely deserve their success. But the search part of their product seems very limited and constrained, and I believe DuckDuckGo doesn’t really have a choice. The main technology behind DDG — and behind other alternative search engines such as Ecosia or Brave — is apparently Bing. And it looks like it is a sort of lower-quality-Bing API or index. The company says it uses hundred of sources, but since most search engines using this Bing technology display more or less the same results, I guess Bing is the main force at play behind DDG’s search engine.
At some point, trying and testing other search engines, I found that even Bing’s results — the real Bing — were better than DuckDuckGo’s, or Ecosia’s, or Brave’s, using the Bing API, or whatever it is called. These alternative search engines were kind of sharing the same crappy results for certain keywords, and it was quite a depressing realisation. Depressing because there is basically only one alternative, and it is coming from a company I have been trying to avoid as much as I could: Google.1
Whatever you think of DDG’s results, whether you consider them good, just OK, or bad, the truth is that Google’s results are just better, the search engine is way smarter, and it really shows when you’re looking for something either very specific, or very recent (I am not even talking about the local results, because there is no competition here: Google wins).
For a long time, I was fine using the arguably lesser-quality search engine because the privacy of the user was so more protected with DDG. Today I think the privacy argument alone is not enough to keep me using DDG. While DDG became good — quite good even — Google became excellent, and while DuckDuckGo’s quality sort of stagnated since 2016-2017, Google’s kept on improving, despite the obvious SEO spam. As Michael Tsai said in 2020:
My experience has been that Google’s results are much better than Bing’s, which are better than DuckDuckGo’s.
Earlier today, I wanted to know who was the CEO of Amazon, so I typed “amazon ceo” and DuckDuckGo’s first results were a picture of Jeff Bezos, a link to Jeff Bezos’ Wikipedia page, and a small window summarising his Wikipedia entry. I typed the same thing on Google, and the first result was a prominent portrait of Andy Jassy, who has been CEO of Amazon since July 2021. In the past couple of months, I’ve encountered dozens if not hundreds of similar disappointments or sometimes even nonsensical results: today’s “Bezos event” was the last straw I guess.
Out of curiosity, I will keep going back to DuckDuckGo, and I will keep doing a few searches with it. I will keep on following their blog, and I will check from time to time if their search technology — or Bing’s — improved or changed at all. But it won’t be my default search engine anymore. Google will be, as much as it pains me to use it again, after all these years avoiding it, mostly for privacy and principles reasons.2
One thing I will miss from DDG, and where I think it is still better than Google, is the multi-language search results management. On DuckDuckGo, there is a simple toggle between your current region’s results (for me France), and the “world’s” results (according to the language you used for your search input). This little switch has been so useful, so helpful, so quick and easy to use, that I will probably need some time to readapt to Google for the kind of search requests that need a per-country filter. Or maybe it will be the feature that will push me back to DDG.