BROOKE GLADSTONE: This just in: Wired.com reports that the “Google of China,” called Baidu, is setting up a lab in Silicon Valley dedicated to “deep learning,” an emerging computer science field that seeks to mimic the human brain. And, as Wired observed, it makes sense if you want to compete with Google, best to do it in Google’s backyard. The lead researcher on the project, Kai Yu, said that they want to build an algorithm that can identify images and understand natural language and then parse the relationships between all the stuff on the Web and find exactly what you’re looking for, in other words, trying to beat Google. That’s a global frustration. Earlier this week, a consortium of big tech companies, including Microsoft and Oracle, filed suit in the European Union against Google. The charge? Google was using its Android mobile system to monopolize the crucial mobile market. Yawn, how often has Google been accused of giving search preference to its own products, invading users’ privacy and unfairly crushing competitors? And how many times has Google denied its seeming invulnerability in the search market? Here’s Eric Schmidt, Google's then CEO, in front of Congress in 2011.
ERIC SCHMIDT: If you don’t like the answer that Google Search provides, you can switch to another engine with literally one click.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the digital age, he says, no one dominates for long.
ERIC SCHMIDT: The only constant is change. Ten years ago no one would have guessed that the vocabulary in economics would look like it, it does today. And no one knows what it will look like in one year or five years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Google is accused so often of not playing fair that it doesn’t respond most of the time, but this time it must have hit a nerve because Google responded on its blog, writing, “If users don’t like our results, they can try Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, or even Google minus Google. Producer Chris Neary has the story about the one with the Duck.
CHRIS NEARY: Okay, you’ve heard of Yahoo and Bing, and Google Minus Google is just a way to use Google that doesn’t call up results from Google Products, like YouTube. As for DuckDuckGo, you’ve probably never heard of it.
GABRIEL WEINBERG: Sure, Gabriel Weinberg, and I run the search engine DuckDuckGo.
CHRIS NEARY: DuckDuckGo is based in the town of Paoli, Pennsylvania. In Gabe’s office, there’s a tiny kid-sized office chair for his kids to use when they come to work with him. He’s just 33 and the company has six employees. It’s only about five years old.
GABRIEL WEINBERG: So we’ve grown about 500% every year, so from that perspective about a year ago we were at about 10 million searches a month and now we’re at about 50. And so, if we grew about five times where we are now, we’d be about 1% of the market.
CHRIS NEARY: DuckDuckGo got $3 million in venture capital funding a little while back. Nate is not an amateur in the tech world. He made $10 million selling an early social networking company. So maybe Google citing DuckDuckGo isn’t entirely absurd.
GABRIEL WEINBERG: So I mean, it’s awesome. I mean, it’s great to be called out as a competitor. They have all this antitrust legal stuff going on, and it's their best interest to say that there are competitors that people can switch to. And, and we get out of it to be taken seriously.
CHRIS NEARY: DuckDuckGo isn’t a search engine like Google. It actually uses search data from other sites, including Yahoo. It runs Yahoo's ads and splits the revenue with them. So how is DuckDuckGo different? Gabe believes he's created a way to present the data in a better, more relevant way. But that means different results from Google, and that can be jarring. On the plus side, DuckDuckGo doesn't collect any of your personal data, at all, full stop. That's drawn a lot of users and media attention. Still, Danny Sullivan, who founded Search Engine Land.com, laughed when Google cited DuckDuckGo as a contender.
DANNY SULLIVAN: It would be like a major baseball player saying, yeah, there’s plenty of great athletes out there, look at this kid who’s in eighth grade. [LAUGHS] And the only reason it can really get counted is because there's relatively little competition in the space, that you’re almost sort of dredging the, the ground to try to find somebody else you can throw in there to make it sound like it's a very competitive market.
CHRIS NEARY: Google is playing a different game from smaller search engines. It has the resources to be super granular and global. They’re thinking about things like how do we suggest better-related searches when you're searching in Vietnamese for famous actors and actresses? They get that far down into the weeds to do those kinds of specific things, and they have that much talent and that much resources that they throw behind it.
Google said you’re free to click over to DuckDuckGo if you’re dissatisfied. But is it really that easy? Switching search engines fundamentally changes how you answer life’s questions. Gabe says if you use DuckDuckGo for a week, you’ll be converted. So I asked OTM producers Alex Goldman, Jamie York, Sarah Abdurrahman and PJ Vogt to join me in using DuckDuckGo, and only DuckDuckGo, for a week. But first, I asked them what they use now.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: I use Google.
PJ VOGT: Alta Vista.
PJ VOGT: Google.
CHRIS NEARY: That last one, PJ, he studies improv.
PJ VOGT: When I’m home at my mom’s house using her computer, she has it set on like one of the bad ones, like Yahoo! or something, and I don’t know how to fix it. So when I’m home I use it, and it’s bad.
CHRIS NEARY: Alex had a similar experience with Ask.com, when his wife accidentally installed it as a default browser.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I ended up using Ask for about 15 minutes, which was a nightmare!
CHRIS NEARY: So what’s the noticeable difference?
ALEX GOLDMAN: The noticeable difference is it gives you nothing of utility.
CHRIS NEARY: And here’s Jamie, our longest tenured producer, on the prospect of not using Google.
JAMIE YORK: Like I would feel with writing with my left hand for a week. It seems totally unnatural.
CHRIS NEARY: Sarah, who’s been called unflappable around the office, was game.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: I haven’t used DuckDuckGo yet but I’ve seen its home page which looks really clean and doesn’t have a lot of clutter on it. And I’m not as terrified as the rest of the guys because I can’t imagine how the results could be so different.
CHRIS NEARY: All right, a quick word about our jobs. The most important part is finding stories for the show. Google helps us find those stories. Switching to another search engine made our jobs harder.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
A week passed. Stories were found, guests were booked, interviews were edited. An episode of On the Media was made. And yet?
PJ VOGT: If you were learning English in our office, you’d think the name of the search Web service, was like, “--ing DuckDuckGo.com.”
CHRIS NEARY: That’s PJ after a week.
PJ VOGT: It’s like actually affected my moods, and I was telling you this - if I drink at all, the first thing I want to do is just Google stuff.
CHRIS NEARY: And Alex, he missed the breaking news Google gives him at the top of his search results.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I mean, how am I supposed to know what Jennifer Lawrence's dress for the Oscars looked like if I can't Google - if I can’t DuckDuckGo, “Jennifer Lawrence Oscar dress” and find a picture of it immediately?
CHRIS NEARY: Everyone was frustrated, except Sarah.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: I kind of liked how the search results had like the symbol of the pages. It was kind of like a shortcut. If the – one of the search results was from CNN, it had the CNN logo next to it or something like that. I mean, it was really clean-looking.
JAMIE YORK: Philosophically, I don’t like the idea that there’s nothing that can challenge Google and that we all just sort of sit back and wait for Google to deliver to us the things that will make our lives better and easier.
CHRIS NEARY: That’s Jamie, our staff philosopher.
JAMIE YORK: I mean, how else do you get to vote? By, you know, favoring another search that makes privacy job one [?].
CHRIS NEARY: There are some people who have cast their vote for DuckDuckGo, and I talked with a couple of them. A few impressions: They were technically adept, interested in privacy and – they go their own way.
HUGH ROPER: I’m a graphic designer, but I’m also a Republican. And I don’t know any graphic designers, other than myself, that [LAUGHS] – you know, that are Republicans.
CHRIS NEARY: That’s Hugh Roper, a regular DuckDuckGo user and?
HUGH ROPER: I’m a Mormon and I volunteer to teach high school seniors. My class starts at 5:50 in the morning. I get up early, I put a suit and tie on. And then once that’s over, then I come home, I change into jeans and I’ll usually spike my hair.
CHRIS NEARY: After an initially false start with DuckDuckGo a few years back, Hugh says it now does everything he needs, and the search results are at least as good as Google's. The difference between Hugh and my coworkers? Hugh wanted to find an alternative.
HUGH ROPER: I think generally when companies are considered the underdog, they have to work harder. I think they focus on the customer more. And I really don't think Google’s motivation is to do what’s best for the customer. I think they do what’s best for Google.
CHRIS NEARY: So I also tried DuckDuckGo. It’s been about two months. It’s my default search at work and I can say it becomes easier and more effective, if you give it a little more time. Still, if I don’t immediately find what I’m looking for, I switch over to Google. Danny Sullivan of searchengineland.com thinks he knows why.
DANNY SULLIVAN: For thousands of years, [LAUGHS] hundreds of thousands of years, if we needed to know something we turned to other people we trusted. And in the blink of an eye, we started putting in our most complicated or private or uncertain questions into these search engines, and we – we built this relationship with these search engines that we use, and these days we've built this relationship with Google that we trusted. And so, when you think about these competitors, it’s almost as if they’re like somebody you don't know walking into your house, saying, hey, I want to be your best friend, let’s go hang out. [LAUGHS] Who are you? And if you do try it, you’re gonna be really wary of it. If it makes any kind of mistakes and doesn’t lead you, you know, correctly, you’re gonna go, well, I want to go back to my other friend.
If Google starts doing things you really don’t like, then you might start thinking, hey, I kind of need to hang with someone else. Come on, DuckDuckGo, let’s go – [LAUGHS] let’s go for a walk. [LAUGHING]
CHRIS NEARY: Okay, here’s something that happened during the course of reporting this story. I searched for the Planet Money site. That's another NPR show. It told me that Planet Money was a dangerous site, and clearly, that's not true. I called Gabe, he fixed it quickly, and then he wrote me an explanation. It was pretty cool. That doesn’t make us best friends, but it is a start.
[I DREAM OF JEANNIE THEME MUSIC/UP AND UNDER]
For On the Media, I’m Chris Neary.