Scandal? DuckDuckGo Keeps Growing But Earns Affiliate Commissions From Organic Results

The last time I talked about the alternative search engine DuckDuckGo, which characterized as an extra private search engine, was in mid-February when it reached for a record of one million daily searches. Since then, it has grown. A lot.

It appears that in the last six weeks, DuckDuckGo’s daily search queries have increased by more than 56%! Then, I began asking myself how does this search engine makes money? There are obviously sponsored links on the top of the search results page but I didn’t find any advertising section.

So I started to sniff around and very fast I found out how DuckDuckGo earns. And I didn’t liked it (to say the least).

But let’s start from the search engine growing stats first. According to DuckDuckGo’s public traffic page the site’s search queries requests are growing in phenomenal rate. Since March 26th through March 29th (last day data is available), DuckDuckGo has served more than 1.5 million search queries every day!

These numbers should be taken under the right proportions, Google served in February 11.7 billion queries and Bing served 2.7 billion. However it still pretty impressive growth in such a short while.

DuckDuckGo Daily Search Queries March 2012

One reason I can think about for this fast rise is, as some studies have indicated, many people feels that personalized search results are bad and even violating their privacy. Therefore, some people shifted towards DuckDuckGo as it offers more privacy.

How DuckDuckGo Makes Money

As I stated before, this fast growth aroused my curiosity about how the search engine earns. It didn’t took a lot of time to find the following page on DuckDuckGo’s Support Center, which elaborates about the site’s two sources of revenue:

  • Sponsored Links- Like almost any other search engine, DuckDuckGo has a sponsored results section at the top of the results page. The sponsored results are syndicated through Microsoft adCenter.
  • Affiliate Search Results- Whenever the users are visiting eCommerce sites like Amazon and eBay and buying things, DuckDuckGo earns a commission.

Wait, what?? DuckDuckGo earns affiliate commissions whenever it sends users to third-party sites?? Are you kidding me?? Is this your twisted version for IMPARTIAL UNBIASED search results?? I had to find out exactly how it works so I conducted a simple query for the Amazon pages indexed. Here’s what I revealed:

DuckDuckGo Amazon Affiliate Links

As you can see in the screenshot above, ALL of Amazon’s results are AFFILIATE links! You can see it in every Amazon URL that ends with /?tag=duckduckgo-d-20, which means that DuckDuckGo will earn a commission whenever a user arriving from the search engine and making a purchase.

It is a major violation of the most basic users-search engine-site owners ethics! There’s no problem when a search engine is profiting from a paid links section, but when it earns commissions from the ORGANIC search results it is completely flawed!

How can we trust it when an Amazon page is rankings above another eCommerce site? How can we trust it when it makes some algorithmic change? How can we know that it isn’t designed to promote the site’s own affiliate links?

DuckDuckGo slams Google for not really thinking about the user and essentially just thinking about money. Even if it is the case, at this point in time I don’t see DuckDuckGo as any different.

I contacted DuckDuckGo for their comment and when/if they will respond, I will keep you updated.

Update (4/1/2012)- DuckDuckGo’s representative sent me the following statement (via email):

We do have sponsored links and affiliate commissions but our sponsored links can be disabled in the Settings menu, at any time, and our affiliate revenue is tracked in a way that avoid the use of any user information (because we don’t even have any : ).

Later on, when I requested further clarifications he sent me a second email with the following statement:

Our ultimate goal is to provide the most relevant results for your query and our affiliate links do not hinder or alter the results shown for any particular search.