College Humor brought our relationship with the Google search bar to life this week in its much-shared video sketch, "What If Google Was a Guy?" In it, a frumpy, middle-aged man sits behind a cluttered desk and responds to people's queries one by one. It shows just how bizarre, gross and annoying our search habits can be. It's also a reminder that someone -- even if that someone is an algorithm -- is listening.
Enter privacy-friendly search sites promising to hide those embarrassing search queries, ask no questions, and shield your searches from subpoena. While these "private" alternatives are far from knocking Google off its throne as King of Search (Google says it processes more than 1 trillion queries a year), they are growing in popularity. Even Google will tell you that: Here's Google Trends showing an increase in searches for "private search engine":
DuckDuckGo is one of the most popular. It promises to give you a private search experience by not tracking cookies and not saving a record of your computer's IP address. Cookies store information about you and your online preferences. On one hand, you get a more personalized Web experience in which you don't have to resubmit basic information. On the other, advertisers -- and the government -- can track your online actions.
The five-year-old search engine's popularity exploded following the news that the National Security Administration was snooping on the Web: The month before Edward Snowden revealed the Internet surveillance programs, the site saw 54.4 million requests; the month after it saw 105.6 million. DuckDuckGo handled about 1 billion queries in 2013, double what it did in 2012.
Because DuckDuckGo doesn't track you, it also removes search filtering based on your preferences and search patterns. That can make for a clunkier experience. DuckDuckGo doesn't use auto-fill (though with the weird array of things people search for feeding Google's auto-fill service, maybe that's not always such a bad thing...). There are also no helpful suggestions based on your location.
DuckDuckGo isn't the only Google-alternative promising more privacy. There's IxQuick, which also says it does not store IP address or cookies. And there are lots of other tricks and tools to make your Web experience more private. Services such as Internet Explorer's "InPrivate browsing" option and Google Chrome's "incognito mode", while not completely track-free, prevent others who use your browser from seeing your Web history. Whether you opt to go completely invisible, or stick with what you know, remember to read the privacy disclaimer fine print and tweak your personal privacy settings. Most settings are set to track your search behaviors by default.
With the growing concern for privacy, Google should pay attention. There may come a time when instead of saying, "Just Google it," we say, "Just Duck it."
(Kirsten Salyer is social media editor for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)