A while back, I started testing two things to switch up my browsing habits (and partially free them from Google): I began using Firefox Quantum1, and I switched my default search provider to DuckDuckGo. I have been spending pretty much equal time with both Google and DuckDuckGo since (though, admittedly, I have many prior years of comfort with Google). This has been more than just a purposeless experiment. Google started out as a company that I liked that made a product that I liked. This slowly but surely morphed into a company that I was somewhat iffy about, but with several products that I liked. Nowadays, the company only increases in iffiness, but Google’s products are increasingly feeling bloated and clumsy. Meanwhile the once-laughable alternatives to said products have improved dramatically.
As far as results are concerned, Google (the search engine, from here on out) is still quite good. When it works, it’s pretty much unbeatable for result prioritization, that is, getting me the answer I’m seeking out with little-to-no poking around. But it’s not infrequent that I come across a query that simply doesn’t work – it’s too similar to a more common query, so Google thinks I must have wanted the common thing, or Google includes synonyms for query terms that completely throw off the results. The ads, and sponsored results (aka different ads) are increasing to the point of being a distraction (particularly on mobile, it can take multiple screens worth of scrolling to actually get to results). AMP content is prioritized, and AMP is a real thorn in the side of the open web (Kyle Schreiber sums up many of AMP’s problems succinctly). Finally, Google is obviously an advertising company, and we all know by now that everything we search for exists as a means to track us. This is not a huge complaint for me; it’s a known ‘price’ for the service. For as much as it leads to targeted advertising, it also helps tailor search results. Of course, this seems nice on the surface, but is a bit of a double-edged sword due to the filter bubble.
To be fair, some of these things are mitigated by using encrypted.google.com, but its behavior is seemingly undocumented and certainly nothing I would rely on2. This is where DuckDuckGo, which was designed from the ground up to avoid tracking, comes in. DuckDuckGo makes its money from ads, but these ads are based on the current search rather than anything persistent. They can also be turned off in settings. The settings panel also offers a lot of visual adjustments, many of which I’m sure are welcome for users with limited vision3. Anyway, my experiences thus far using DuckDuckGo as a serious contender to Google are probably best summed up as a list:
- For the most part, normal search seems to have near-parity with Google, that is, if I’m looking to be taken elsewhere on the web, I will likely get a helpful result as quickly or nearly so as I would with Google. More niche searches, Google definitely does better diving deep for. Occasionally, if I’m looking to refer back to a specific post on this blog, I’ll just lazily search ‘brhfl firefox’ or the like, and Google definitely gets me there more quickly.
- Google seems to crawl (or at least re-crawl) more often, that is, the descriptions for pages seem like they update quite a bit more often.
- I loathe infinite scrolling, which means that Google has the ‘better’ pagination UI in my opinion. You can disable the automatic loading of more results in DuckDuckGo, but it still loads ‘pages’ in a gross, AJAXy way instead of having real pagination.
- Infinite scrolling aside, however, the minimalist UI is much cleaner than Google’s increasingly messy results list. It also (again, infinite scrolling aside), feels snappier, though I doubt it’s actually faster. I think the immediacy of the content simply makes it feel like good things are coming fast.
- DuckDuckGo has great keyboard support, whereas Google has… none. DuckDuckGo lets you navigate results with either cursor keys or vim keys, and vim keys override Firefox’s instant search, making for an incredibly convenient keyboard-driven experience.
- ‘Instant Answers’ are a mixed bag in that they just work… differently than Google’s analogue, with some being more useful, others less. Right now, for example, searching for ‘Ada Lovelace’ brings up images and Wikipedia on Google, vs. news and Wikipedia on DuckDuckGo4. In this instance, I think DuckDuckGo made a better choice, but it’s hard to say when images of a person would be more or less useful than news. Some really weird math (like ‘days in a year times 2) works in Google, but not DuckDuckGo. Oddly, ‘days in a year’ yields a weird calendar result via TimeAndDate.com from Google, whereas DuckDuckGo tells us the answer: 365.25. Instant Answers have been created and submitted by the community, so there is some weird, frivolous stuff like the ability to play 2048.
- Bangs are my saving grace as far as Firefox’s terrible search bar is concerned, they’re just handy shortcuts to other search engines. For example, ‘!a sailor moon luna plush’ to search Amazon for, well, a Sailor Moon Luna plush. These, too, have been at least somewhat user-submitted, and presumably this is why these are fairly inconsistent. Translation (via Google Translate) is an obvious show of this: many have three distinct forms (to Estonian, for example, can be !gtes, !gtestonian, or !gt-estonian), but not all. Remembering which languages have what bangs available is an exercise for the user. One also has to consider what would be an Instant Answer vs. what would require a bang – ‘translate river to estonian’ pulls up an instant result in Google, but in DuckDuckGo one must rely on a bang. I don’t know that I would give these a second thought if not for trying to fix Firefox.
- Some trivial matters…
- The DuckDuckGo team seems really responsive and open to discussion on Twitter, which is always nice.
- There’s a mobile browser app, which is sort of… a heavier version of Firefox Focus, almost? Just a privacy-focused browser, with something called a privacy grade that ranks sites based on how much tracking it finds, and reports the tracking to you. It’s a welcome addition to the browser space.
- They also make desktop browser extensions that I haven’t used but that I believe do basically the same stuff as the mobile browser.
- Google doodles will always be great, that’s like a really weird human edge that Google has.
All in all, I have no qualms using DuckDuckGo as my primary search engine. I will not pretend that I do not occasionally need to revert to Google to get results on some of the weirder stuff that I’m trying to search for – although, as mentioned earlier, Google thinks it’s smarter than me and rewrites my obscure searches half the time anyway. DuckDuckGo isn’t entirely minimalist or anything, but its straightforward representation, its immediacy, and its clarity all remind me of how clean Google was when it first came to exist in a sea of Lycoses, AltaVistas, and Dogpiles. It returns decent results, and it’s honestly just far more pleasant to use than Google is these days.
- I’m about 50/50 on Chrome/Firefox usage these days. Mostly Firefox on mobile, exclusively Firefox on Linux, and an odd mix elsewhere. It’s not an officially supported browser at work, so I stay in Chrome more since I have to test things. Anyway, I’m getting along with it well enough – still really love the sync; still really, really hate the 1999 URL bar. ↩︎
- There’s a security.stackexchange.com thread about encrypted.google.com which answers a few questions about it, but doesn’t mention things like AMP results seemingly not being foisted upon users at encrypted.google.com. ↩︎
- I, on the other hand, just opted to make mine pink. Clicking this link will make yours pink, too, so don’t do that unless you want a pink search engine. ↩︎
- Note that Lovelace was in the news around the writing of this post, as a manuscript of hers had just sold for £95,000 at auction. It seemingly rewrote the query URL to include a news flag, so I’m curious what this link will end up doing in the future. Regardless, I doubt it would have pulled up a bunch of old news in the Instant Answers section if there was no current news. Update 2019-06-20: Ada Lovelace has not been in the news recently, and searching DDG for her name did not bring up news items at the top. Neat. ↩︎