Giving up on Google

and embracing DuckDuckGo

September 13, 2010

Say hello to DuckDuckGo

A while back I started using DuckDuckGo as my default search engine. It has some great features: it will disambiguate your search result by subject (for example, a DDG search for "camera" results in, "DDG knows Camera can mean different things. Click what you meant by Camera to get matching results." followed by different categories for camera: the device, the magazine, movies, etc.); it provides "zero click info" from sites like Wikipedia, StackOverflow, and Merriam-Webster for various searches; for programmers, it easily searches online documentation for programming terms and frameworks; and more. Take the time to look at its "Goodies" page; you'll probably find something there that you didn't know about.

Then one day, a funny thing happened. Shortly after using it, I ran into a user interface frustration with the zero-click info box popping up after I had already tried clicking on the first search result. I used the "Give Feedback" widget in the corner of the page to politely complain about this ... and the very next day, it was fixed, along with a nice message from Gabriel, DDG's founder.

I realize that as DDG grows, it will get much harder to provide that kind of excellent response. Still, it says volumes about where DuckDuckGo's focus is -- it's focusing on the people using it, and on meeting their needs.

Yahoo can't be taken seriously

I've had two tabs open in Firefox for a while that neatly illustrates why Yahoo really isn't in the search business anymore, at least among the tech-savvy. Open up two tabs to Yahoo's search engine. In one, search for "Windows live mail streamline compose window"; in the other, search for "Windows live mail streamlining compose window". The search results are miserably different; the first search isn't helpful at all if you're trying to figure out how to remove the various buttons and widgets from Windows Live Mail's compose window. The second, less intuitive search actually has what you're looking for. Google has treated words like "streamline" and "streamlining" as synonyms for a long time, while Yahoo has failed to improve that part of its search functions.

Giving up on Google

On the plus side for Yahoo, if I'm clever enough to try using "streamlining" in my search query, I can at least find what I'm looking for. In Google, no such luck.

I run a technology consulting company with multiple field techs. We deal with a ridiculously wide area of tech issues most days; we fix problems with everything from phone systems to stubborn servers to incompatible software to unreliable hardware to websites with 700+ files infected with malware. Search engines are absolutely vital to our business. We use them to find information on error messages, forum discussions, and hardware specs.

And we really don't enjoy using Google for any of it.

There are a few problems with Google as a search engine: one, its search results have been badly gamed; and two, legitimate search results have become cluttered by old, stale web forums and mailing list postings. For the first, let's try a couple of specific examples. Let's say that your technician calls in and says he needs setup information for an Avaya unit, and the only model number he can find is "103r". Check out the search results for "avaya 103r manual" -- at the moment, I see spam, spam, foreign language, irrelevant, spam, spam, spam, and so on. It'll take a while to resolve this model number to a line of products that you can look up on Avaya's website.

Let's try another: "gateway mt6840 motherboard", and you're looking for specs for it (e.g., its socket). You get a mix of annoying sales sites (at least they're relevant) and unhelpful forum questions.

For the second problem, let's try another recent example that we had: an OpenSolaris backup server that refused to boot, with a helpful "Error 16" message. The top result is a forum post from 2008; below that are more posts from 2008 and 2009. The only post on the first page of search results that's dated this year is for an unrelated error.

The experience I have with Google every day has convinced me that they're no longer concentrating on their original mission. Google is now a marketing company, and what was supposed to be their "core competency" has been neglected in favor of rolling out new features and services. I'm far from the only person that thinks Google's search results have been slipping, even though Google seems to think the quality of their search results is improving.

Gmail and Google Docs are also vulnerable

When I needed mail hosting for my business, I considered Gmail. But, I was unimpressed with the glacially slow development of Gmail's interface, its poor filtering capabilities, and the relentless invasion of Google Chat, Google Buzz, and other Google Widgets that refused to stop showing up in my email system, not to mention the per-account pricing, which introduced a hassle to adding new accounts that I didn't want to deal with.

By contrast, I was able to set up my own hosted mail services at low cost, and I have full control over my spam settings, plus email filters that make Google's look positively amateurish. I can sort email automatically into folders depending on any combination of any mail headers that I choose. (And best of all, when I set up a new POP client for it, I don't receive 6,000 old messages that have all already been sorted into other folders -- a problem that Gmail still has.)

The interface on my webmail software feels like a mail client should -- easy navigation, threaded conversations, multiple window panes, and it's fast. Google on the other hand took years before they could be bothered to add buttons to Gmail, and even now Gmail's interface is an ugly monument to 90's era design principles.

Similarly, Google Docs hasn't been useful to me in quite a while. They're slow to use and navigate, but mostly they just aren't a solution to a problem that I have.

And then there was Google Instant

All of this really crystallized for me last week when Google released its "Instant" feature. One of my techs had been saying that Google was coming out with that, but couldn't catch my interest over it. When it actually came out, I tried it, and immediately had this really visceral negative reaction to it. It took me a few days to figure out why, and here's the reason: despite all of the minor frustrations that I and others have with Google on a daily basis, rather than putting serious effort into fixing any of those issues, Google has instead released another feature -- a widget, really. And, that widget has come out-of-the-box with its own problems. If, like me, you're used to typing at 90 words-per-minute into the search box and slamming the "enter" key to quickly get your search results, now you'll often get instead a blank page with no search results at all.

Google just isn't a company that's concentrating on the problems that I need solved. I didn't need "instant" search results; I needed effective search results.

And based on my interactions with DuckDuckGo so far, I think DDG is far more likely to solve my search problems than Google is.


This really got a lot more attention than I ever expected. There's more discussion of this over at HN, and Matt Cutts has gently pointed out that search results can be easily organized by time period if you click on the "More search tools" link on the left-hand-side of a search results page. I really should have noticed that.

It's clear from his response that Google is still putting a lot of effort into its search results; I (and others) are probably edge cases that are much harder to provide helpful results for. For the vast majority of people, Google's search results are quite good.

I want to point out that although my little rant's title was about Google, and although a large chunk of the body text was about Google, I opened with DuckDuckGo on purpose. It's a good product, under active development, with a lot of immediately useful shortcuts and tools, and Gabriel is doing an amazing job at customer management.