October 14, 2021

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What is DuckDuckGo? Everything to know about the private search engine

5 min read

DuckDuckGo wants to put your digital privacy front and center.


DuckDuckGo; illustration by Stephen Shankland/CNET

If you’ve ever searched for a pair of shoes, only to have ads for those same shoes pop up on seemingly every site you visited for the next month, you’ve seen the obnoxious side of online tracking. Enter DuckDuckGo: a search engine that pledges not to track you and also keep your search activity anonymous. 

There are other private browsers, like Brave, that block trackers and third-party cookies monitoring your activity as you search the web. But DuckDuckGo — which has recently had a heavy advertising campaign — sees itself as a direct competitor to Google Search, complete with a mobile app and extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Safari and other browsers. 

After major incidents like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, people have become more aware of how much personal information is available to tech companies and advertisers — and are opting out of being tracked when they can, as Apple’s iOS 14.5 allows you to do. While it doesn’t track users, DuckDuckGo’s app has been downloaded more than 50 million times in the last year alone — more than all other years combined since its launch 13 years ago. 

Here’s what you need to know about DuckDuckGo and how it works to keep your searches more secure.

What is DuckDuckGo? 

DuckDuckGo is a search engine that offers a mobile browser app and a desktop extension, both aimed at allowing you to browse the internet without companies gobbling up your personal data. It promises to keep your searches private, anonymous and offers built-in tracker blocking, so the sites you visit have a harder time collecting information about you. 

Read more: Best VPNs of 2021

How does DuckDuckGo work?

For starters, DuckDuckGo does not track searches made through its browser extension or mobile app. Other browsers, including Chrome, allow you to use private or incognito windows that don’t track your search history, but their default windows do. (That’s the basis of every “embarrassing search history” joke.) Instead of making you navigate to a different version of its app, DuckDuckGo never tracks your search history.

Searches made through DuckDuckGo also automatically connect you to the encrypted versions of websites wherever possible, making it harder for anyone else to see what you’re looking at online. This is another scenario where both options (encrypted and unencrypted) exist other search engines, but the default isn’t always the privacy-friendly option. DuckDuckGo saves you the extra steps of manually navigating to encrypted connections.

DuckDuckGo also actively blocks external trackers from following you around online. For a more detailed explanation of DuckDuckGo’s privacy features, check out DuckDuckGo’s blog

The DuckDuckGo search engine emphasizes privacy.

The DuckDuckGo search engine emphasizes privacy.


Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

How is DuckDuckGo different from Google Search? What about Incognito mode and private browsing?

DuckDuckGo essentially takes the opposite approach compared to other big tech companies like Google and Facebook, which have traditionally made money by targeting ads based on your browsing history and personal data. While Google has said it’s going to stop this practice, the platform still collects a ton of data about you, including your location and search activity — yes, even in incognito mode. 

Incognito mode simply deletes information related to your browsing session from your computer: your history, cookies and any info you’ve entered into fields. Notably, it only does that after you end your session by closing out all your tabs. So if you leave your incognito tabs open for hours or days at a time, that information will still build up. And no matter what, Google can save your searches — and companies, internet service providers and governments can still track you across the internet, even when you’re using incognito mode.

DuckDuckGo is different because it doesn’t store your browsing data at all, and it blocks trackers while you’re browsing. 

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When you first use the DuckDuckGo Privacy Browser, the app will walk you through the different ways it protects your privacy.


Screenshot from Adam Benjamin/CNET

If it isn’t targeting ads, how does DuckDuckGo make money?

DuckDuckGo still makes money from advertising — it just doesn’t use targeted ads. The search engine shows you ads based on the keywords you search for, which aren’t connected to your personal data like your browsing or purchase history. Essentially, you’ll only see ads for whatever you’re currently searching for, not the weird product your friend sent you a link to last week that you now can’t get away from. 

How can I use DuckDuckGo?

On mobile devices, simply open your app store and search for “DuckDuckGo.” You’ll be able to download the DuckDuckGo Privacy Browser app and use it the same way you’d use Chrome or Safari. At the bottom center of your app, you’ll see a fire icon, which you can press at any time to close all your tabs and clear all personal data.

On desktop, go to duckduckgo.com, where you’ll see a button to add DuckDuckGo to your browser. On Chrome, you’ll be directed to the Chrome webstore page to download the extension for free. On Safari, you’ll be instructed on how to set DuckDuckGo as your default search engine or to manually activate a search using DuckDuckGo. 

For more about online privacy, check out the browser privacy settings you should change right now, how to stop your iPhone apps from tracking you, and the best password managers of 2021


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