DuckDuckGo is a better search engine

The Thinker by Rodin

Google pretty much owns the search engine market, but why? Perhaps it was because they were the first to do it well. In the old days of search engines when we were forced to use sites like Lycos and AltaVista, finding useful stuff on the web was excruciating, requiring you to go through many pages of results (and usually wait … these were back in the connect-by-modem days). Google figured out how to turn relevance into an algorithm. Basically, the more sites that link to a page, the more relevant it is.

There’s more to a search engine than that, of course, but that was the big innovation. And not surprisingly, once that was figured out other search engines figured out how to do this too. For most search engine queries, you will get a set of similar results.

But with Google search, you get more, but in this case more maybe less. Specifically, what you get is what Facebook figured out, probably after seeing what Google was doing. Google will watch your behavior closely and give you more of what it thinks you like. To do that of course, it had to learn a whole lot more about you. And most of us are happy to comply, since most of us are logged into Google accounts. Even if we are not, given that we leave cookies in our browsers, not to mention IP addresses, so Google can usually figure out it’s you. With every search engine query and use of its services it learns more about you. Google probably knows you better than your spouse does.

The downside is that, like Facebook, you end up in a filter bubble. Google knows if you swing left and so your queries are unlikely to show links that swing right, at least not on the first page. In short, Google and other search engines undercut its own quest to provide relevant search results by providing you links to stuff you are more likely to click on. They are relevant as long as you want results that reflect your biases.

It’s a profitable strategy for Google. It just watches you behind the scenes. Its powerful algorithms give you more and more reasons to invest time with Google and its many services. I plead guilty because like almost everyone I have a Google account. I use GMail extensively. I long ago stopped using an email client. I do all my email using GMail’s web interface. I do turn off the marketing (thanks, Google!) and, gosh, with all that space and it’s amazing search interface I can find pretty much anything in my email in a few seconds spanning more than a decade of use. Since I have lots of clients, it’s quite a value to do things like easily figure out what their issue was six month ago. I’m willing to pay to use GMail, if I have to.

But I don’t have to use Google search. Since discovering DuckDuckGo, I rarely use it for search anymore. That’s because DuckDuckGo is kind of retro in a way: it provides more relevant results by getting you out of search personalization. I’m getting more relevant results with it. Moreover, DuckDuckGo doesn’t track your usage. It doesn’t know who you are. It doesn’t follow you around with ads. It just gives you highly relevant search results with incredible speed. I can hardly press the enter key before I get a page of results.

My result is now a lot of highly relevant content I wasn’t seeing before, mainly because it wasn’t on the first page of results. Google was figuring I didn’t want to see this other stuff, but I do. Actually, it was feeding me links that matched my biases, hoping I would stick around. With DuckDuckGo though, searching is becoming more useful again. Moreover, I am learning stuff by reading sites I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m becoming more informed, getting actual news and perspective. Real news after all tells you objective truth, not selective truth. I’m moving out of my own filter bubble and into a wider world. I am gleaning actual insight. It’s neat and kind of humbling. But it shouldn’t be. Rather, the question should be why did Google and other search engines put us in this bubble in the first place? Of course: they were chasing mammon, putting their best interests ahead of yours

To use DuckDuckGo regularly, you have to change your default search engine. It’s not hard to do; it’s just something we don’t think about because for most of us we can’t imagine there is something out there better than Google. You’ve been sold a bill of goods that isn’t quite true.

Try it for a week and tell me I’m wrong. I’ve been using it for a few months now. I can’t see ever going back.

For more reasons of the virtues of this search engines and some of Google’s slightly evil side, watch this video:

Ghostwriter (or the art of tricking Google)

The Thinker by Rodin

All my life I wanted to be a paid writer. Being a writer sounded quite glamorous. You are paid to create and if you were good enough or wrote for just the right mass audience you could be wealthy like Stephen King.

Life didn’t work out that way for me. It’s probably for the best because most writers are starving writers, which means they do it as a hobby and not for much real income. They have other jobs that pay the rent. Moreover most writing is not glamorous, even when it pays well. Most writers dream of writing popular fiction. What most writers actually do is write articles for magazines or trade journals, or the local newspaper. They adhere to editorial guidelines. Their writing is not very creative. It’s about putting a number of facts and quotations on paper or online in a way that may be interesting enough for the reader to make it to the end of the article. These days even publishers don’t care if readers read the entire article or not. They are looking to serve ads. They care about whether your article attracts a lot of ad views. Whether it gets read is not that important, unless they are going for some sort of award.

So if you can find a writing job it is likely to pay poorly and be demoralizing to you and your self-esteem. And if you do manage to get a book published, it’s likely to sell a hundred to a thousand copies, with extras ending up in a discount book bin or just shredded for pulp for the next book. For the vast majority of creative writers, writing does not provide close to a living wage. Most editors will refuse to acknowledge your brilliance.

Recently though I did get paid to write. I was paid to ghostwrite. So in a sense I have become a published writer, although I think the content is going strictly online. Essentially, I’m being paid to influence Google’s search engine. Yes, I am writing for a set of algorithms! I’ve become something of a slave to the computer!

Google of course is the king of search engines. Getting high or higher on its search index is important. For many businesses it’s the difference between life or death. The only question is: how to get ranked higher than your competitors? Google is not telling, although it does give some hints. Needless to say there are plenty of companies out there that claim they can get your company ranked higher.

Most of these outfits are selling snake oil. There are lots of obvious things that can be done which don’t hurt, such as having URLs with meaningful information about your article, providing a sitemap.xml file and removing bad links. In the trade this is called “search engine optimization” or SEO. Everyone with the means to do so is already doing SEO. What you really want is for your company to appear in the top page of Google’s listing, ideally at or near the top for a given search phrase. These are links that people will click on.

One of my clients has made a business of SEO. I’ll call him Dick (not his real name). He’s hired me for odd jobs maintaining his forum, generally because he’s too busy making real money to mess with it. Dick has a reputation in the SEO world of getting results. That’s why Dick sought me out to be a ghostwriter.

Dick’s success has come through building a company’s online reputation. He figured out that Google ranks higher those sites that publish honest articles. I have no idea how Google assigns an honesty rating to an article, but somehow it’s got a built in bullshit detector in its algorithms. If it doesn’t look like bullshit, it’s ranked higher. If it looks authoritative, it’s ranked even higher. If you publish lots of articles that look honest and impartial, over time it will raise the ranking of your company in Google’s search index. This is a long-term strategy and it’s a costly one as well.

So I was hired to write some technical articles in this client’s particular domain. It turns out I have pretty good credentials. First, I do information technology for a living, so I have practical and current experience along with a masters degree in software systems engineering. Second, I write fairly well. Third, I am mostly retired. And fourth, I can write an impartial article. My years in government have actually helped. Government employees develop finely honed bullshit detectors, because we are constantly dealing with vendors trying to get their products and services into our enterprise.

Dick is also kind enough to provide a few sample articles for my topic. I use these as well as my thirty years in the business to crank out these articles. Generally they are no more than 800 words and follow a format. I charge by the hour. Since most of these are survey articles, I don’t have to really do any research. I just start writing. It takes me about three hours to write an article. I bill at $30/hour (my retiree rate). So far I’ve done two articles and earned $180 ghostwriting. There will probably be more, as the client is satisfied with my work.

I have no idea where these articles will be placed, but Dick tries to get them in online publications of authoritative sites. I could probably find them online if I looked. Dick does edit what I send him, so it may appear somewhat altered. But at least I am a published writer. Some people may find my articles interesting, but the only “person” of real interest is Google’s search engine. We are basically trying to fake it out. Dick’s client is essentially renting my experience for potential future customers and an improved reputation.

I’ll probably never know how this will all pan out. Some part of me thinks I am being dishonest. I am writing honest articles, but I am doing it on behalf of a company that doesn’t have the in-house skills or the time to do it. They are essentially renting my reputation, such as it is, to add to their reputation.

But hey, at least I am a published writer now! My pseudonym? Call me Anonymous.