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Start Me Up: Search Engine Innovation

Gabe Weinberg: A Virtual Community Driving Real Success!

by Dan Leidl & Joe Frontiera

Are you in the market for a new search engine?  Well, Gabe Weinberg and the DuckDuckGo team  may have just what you’re looking for.  With some of the biggest names in the tech industry dominating search engine platforms, Gabe Weinberg may have found a niche.   The Little Search Engine That Could is slowly building a company and concept that is legitimately rivaling the big boys.  For DuckDuckGo, a dedication to open source material, a global virtual team, and a commitment to privacy are the ingredients for an unlikely rise to more than 1.5 million direct searches daily.

An MIT grad with a passion for open source technology, Weinberg presents himself as articulate, thoughtful, and technologically savvy in the way that Derek Jeter is baseball savvy.  Weinberg talks in a watered-down techno-speak that can be difficult to understand, but eludes any sense of pretention.  In fact, he carries himself as remarkably genuine, oozing enthusiasm for shared technology and communal computing, and has recently begun a movement to support his passion more fervently.  DuckDuckGo is not only proud to draw on crowd-sourced content, such as Wikipedia, it also boasts an evolving open source platform.  Additionally, Weinberg has woven the support of open source projects into the make-up of DuckDuckGo, creating a Free and Open Source Tithe movement whereby DuckDuckGo and others can pledge a percentage of earnings annually to support other open source initiatives.  “I thought it would be cool to start a movement over time where you can give back to open source projects,” Weinberg says.  Ever committed to communal approach, Weinberg has made it so that fifty-percent of the projects funded are chosen by DuckDuckGo corporate while the other half are chosen by the expanding DuckDuckGo community.

While DuckDuckGo is not wholly open source, the general philosophy shines throughout the organization.  Weinberg’s belief in the power of many is best articulated in the development of the DuckDuckGo team.  Only recently has he created a physical location for the company and is somewhat proud of his single active employee.  In many ways he is advancing a philosophy for how organizations can grow in the digital age.  “I do think that that is the future in general,” Weinberg begins, “companies sourcing parts.”

In other words, he is committed to building a global team of consultants and community members that are interested in lending their talents to the growth of the DuckDuckGo concept.  He brings in talent as needed rather than having people sitting in cubes combing the Internet.  In so doing, Weinberg and his compatriots stay connected through tools such as Skype and Internet Relay Chat, committed to a mission that transcends any notion of ‘daily grind’ or a static ‘corporate team’.  Even though he’s using interchangeable parts, Weinberg believes that his methods are lasting. He punctuates that general sentiment by exclaiming, “My goal is to build this into a long term  sustainable company that makes a real difference.”

Finally, it’s that difference that Weinberg has focused on in developing his search engine that may very well propel DuckDuckGo into a memorable Internet success story.  DuckDuckGo is committed to privacy in a way that few competitors are.  Unlike larger search engines that we’ve all come to use regularly, private information is neither captured nor stored.  DuckDuckGo is not keeping tabs on what you’re searching – it’s completely private.  Although seemingly minor, this distinction separates DuckDuckGo from the pack in a big way.  “What’s hard in the web search market is differentiation,” explains Weinberg.  While privacy wasn’t an initial focus for Weinberg, it quickly became a major selling point.  At first Weinberg simply wanted to create an engine with much less spam and more reliance on crowd sourced information.  But, as Weinberg explains, “I launched it, and almost immediately got questions about privacy.”  In time, Weinberg adopted clear policies in respect of privacy, and created a niche search engine that is now attracting millions.

Weinberg is no newbie to Internet startups.  He’s failed more than many, and is open about his missteps.  He hit big in 2006 when he sold his startup to, and has making major strides with DuckDuckGo in the past few years.  In addition to its growth, his latest venture is beginning to garner wide-scale recognition.  It was named one of TIME’S 50 Best Websites of 2011, and is slowly gaining attention from those outside the insider world of Internet technology.  While the growth of DuckDuckGo is a story worth watching, perhaps most fascinating is how the company continues to grow.  A commitment to community and basic privacy rights has taken this little search engine far already.  Despite that genuine achievement, to compete with the big boys, it still has a great deal further to go.

Dan Leidl & Joe Frontiera co-author a regular column in the Washington Post’s “On Leadership.” Dan and Joe are also managing partners of Meno Consulting and authors of forthcoming book, Team Turnarounds, to be published in July of 2012 by Jossey-Bass.

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