DuckDuckGo vs. VPN: What’s the Difference?
DuckDuckGo and VPN are both powerful tools in the battle to reclaim user privacy on the internet. As tech companies have grown bigger, their hold of users’ data and online activity has only continued to solidify. So if DuckDuckGo and VPN both help you keep your activity online relatively anonymous, what sets them apart?
The difference between both is that DuckDuckGo is a private search engine and a tracker-blocking service that keeps websites from placing cookies on your device to track your online activity, while VPN is a method to connect yourself to a proxy, so your location and identity are harder to pinpoint.
In this article, you will learn about the complete suite of DuckDuckGo’s services and how it helps keep your activity private. You will also learn about VPNs and why they are essential in hiding your identity. Furthermore, you will learn about the pros and cons of each option.
DuckDuckGo: A Basic Overview
DuckDuckGo came about as a solution to Google’s almost omniscient tracking of its users. Therefore, to understand DuckDuckGo, one must understand what Google does. As Google makes money by advertising to consumers of Chrome, Google Search Engine, and other Google platforms like YouTube, it is best compensated if its advertising matches the people who are browsing the platforms on which the ads appear.
Therefore, Google uses a mix of Cookies, Cloud-stored browsing history, and a history of one’s Google Searches to compile a profile of you. For this, the company uses artificial intelligence with deep learning capabilities. As the AI makes a more comprehensive profile of you, you start seeing ads that match your interests. While that is good for your overall user experience, millions of people are concerned about what this means for their privacy.
To answer this concern, DuckDuckGo was founded as a search engine that does not track its users. It has since expanded to an extension for Google Chrome and a mobile browser. It protects your privacy to the extent that your browsing history is not stored on a cloud server, but your browsing activities are still vulnerable to hacks if you don’t use a VPN.
Pros of DuckDuckGo
Below is a list of advantages of using DuckDuckGo.
No Tracking Whatsoever
While big tech companies have made many promises of reevaluating their privacy policies, and you have heard ‘we take your privacy seriously’ from multiple CEOs of digital giants, the fact remains that most online activity is tracked.
Facebook tracks your browsing activity on websites that have a Facebook pixel enabled. In other words, if you are off Facebook and visit some website about Vacuum cleaners, the website’s owner could allow Facebook to track you on his or her website. As a result, you will be shown ads for the same vacuum cleaner when you log in to Facebook.
While other tech companies find a way to track their customers, DuckDuckGo genuinely has zero tracking for any searches you make and the websites you visit. Furthermore, you do not have to worry about the search engine having information on your location, search history, and the purchases you make.
Your History Is Not on a Cloud
Most people who use Google Chrome or Google Search don’t mind the company keeping track of their history because, after all, it is convenient to bookmark webpages, revisit old searches, and have one’s history at his or her fingertips. In the absence of a device’s history, you would have to type every URL alphabet by alphabet every time you decided to visit a website.
It turns out that you do not need to hand over your history to a tech company for you to be able to rely on it for future use. It is possible to have your history locally saved so you can make use of it while others can’t access it. With DuckDuckgo, anything stored is entirely local and on your computer. Since your history is not uploaded to a server, it is less likely to be hacked.
Keep in mind that companies assumed to be secure have been subject to hacks. Facebook had millions of accounts that got compromised precisely because of a session history cookie, while Twitter accounts of some of the biggest public figures got hacked because of an internal access feature. DuckDuckGo doesn’t store such tracking cookies.
Transparency About Revenue
DuckDuckGo is not a charity, and just like any service you use without paying, it makes money by advertising. Recently, advertising has become synonymous with tracking because each advertising platform wants to deliver ads to the most targeted consumer.
If you search for Washing Machines once, but Google can track that you have not bought one yet, it makes a lot more money by showing you washing machine ads on YouTube, websites that are a part of its display network, and even apps rely on Adsense.
On the other hand, DuckDuckGo shows your ads on the page where you search for washing machines. The only way DuckDuckGo knows to show someone an ad about the washing machine is because of the keyword. As soon as the user skips the ad or closes the page, DuckDuckGo has no idea who the person is and what they want. The company gets to make money, but it does not maximize its profits at the expense of your privacy.
Stop Most Websites From Tracking You
You have read about different tech companies’ tracking methods in this article, and the reason why all of that is relevant is that you do not need to stop using Facebook or Google to reduce these companies’ hold over your browsing activity. DuckDuckGo blocks most tracking cookies and encrypts your web activity so that you are not tracked by most websites that rely on modeling visitor behavior.
This is perhaps the biggest advantage of any service offered by DuckDuckGo.
Cons of DuckDuckGo
In this section, we analyze the different drawbacks of the service cluster.
Over a billion people use Facebook instead of switching to any new ‘ad-free’ social media startups because they don’t mind the advertisements shown on Facebook. Those who remember skipping commercials during Television breaks may wonder why they aren’t as annoyed by Facebook ads as TV ads. That is because Facebook’s tracking is so powerful it can genuinely predict things you are interested in.
As a result, you rarely see an ad for something totally irrelevant. On the other hand, DuckDuckGo relies on the method of advertising used by Google in the nineties. It turns out advertisers can easily abuse keywords to spam ads. For instance, let’s assume you are an advertiser selling weight loss supplements.
As you may know, this is a highly competitive market, and bids for ads on this keyword would be very high. Instead of advertising for that keyword, you advertise for the keyword ‘McDonalds.’ Your guess is that people who eat McDonald’s might likely be overweight.
While this may work towards bringing your ad cost down on DuckDuckGo, people who are fit and are searching for a bite to grab will be seeing your irrelevant ad.
Have you ever wondered how you don’t see any post from Facebook friends you don’t like to talk to? That’s because the platform tracks the posts you skip and starts showing you fewer posts from the same person. Most big tech platforms also use this exact method to keep ads from repeatedly showing up and disrupting your experience.
For instance, Google uses tracking to punish advertisers who show ads to irrelevant audiences. Once you skip an ad, the price of showing that ad to people like you goes up; this keeps advertisers on their toes. As Duckduckgo doesn’t track your disinterest, you may see the same ad every time you search for something.
With our previous example of an advertiser trying to advertise weight loss supplements to people searching for McDonald’s on Duckduckgo, the sect of people who are fit and looking for a bite may see the same irrelevant ad every time they make the query.
Your History Isn’t Entirely Safe
While your search history is vulnerable when you let Google keep it on its servers, the truth is your local device and WiFi router are easier to hack than a Facebook server. So what exactly is at stake?
Whether using a DuckDuckGo browser or any other browser with a DuckDuckGo extension, every domain you visit is still stored in a loosely encrypted manner on your WiFi router. Anyone logged in to the same WiFi can access that information. Hacking a WiFi password is not too difficult, and people can do it even with free apps and little programming knowledge.
Other Services May Not Function Well
DuckDuckGo is a service that’s still in its infancy. This is especially true for its extension, which interferes with other platforms’ and websites’ tracking. While that is a privacy advantage, it is a functionality disadvantage.
Many services rely on tracking your activity to improve your experience. Imagine how annoying Facebook would be if every advertisement on it were completely irrelevant to you. That’s how the advertisements start to be even on other platforms when you use the DuckDuckGo extension.
Aside from delivering ads, platforms use tracking to deliver results. For instance, Google Maps must have access to your location data to help you find the best route to take to a specific destination. Similarly, Uber, Airbnb, and a host of other platforms all rely on accessing information about you to provide you with the service you use them for.
DuckDuckGo can unintentionally end up blocking the service altogether.
VPNs: A Basic Overview
If you are concerned about your privacy, you have probably heard the acronym VPN. It stands for Virtual Private Network and gives you access to remote servers through tunneling. As a result, your connection becomes almost entirely private, as if you were not using the internet but a secluded internal connection.
To understand the value of VPNs, you have to understand the needs they rose to fulfill. Under the conventions set by the telecom union, IP addresses were designed to record the geographic information of the users. Just like your phone’s area code conveys where you are, and your mobile number’s international code communicates your country of residence, an IP address gives a much more precise indicator of where you are.
In fact, you can reverse-search an IP address and narrow a WiFi user’s location down to a block. What makes this scary is the fact that almost every webmaster of the sites you visit have the ability to track your IP.
In other words, if you are browsing a questionable website, the owner has the ability to log your IP address, find your location, and blackmail you.
Aside from the owners or the administrators of the websites you visit, the Internet Service Provider (ISP) you are using can also track your internet activity by cross-referencing it with your IP. In countries where telecom providers are state-owned, the government has the capacity to track people visiting certain websites.
This increased the demand for a solution that would encrypt one’s browsing activity data in a way that would mask one’s identity from webmasters as well as ISPs. That demand led to the creation of VPN services that use encryption protocols and remote server access to fulfill these needs.
Popular VPNs rely on two main protocols favoring one or the other for a particular connection. They either connect through Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) or through the Layer Two Tunneling Protocol (L2TP). While PPTP is faster, L2TP is more secure because it encrypts the data slightly more.
Pros of VPNs
Below are some of the major advantages of using a VPN.
Hide Your Location
You may have been the most alarmed to find out that not only can website owners pinpoint your IP address once you visit their site but that they can reverse-search the address to find your physical location. With VPN, you connect to a remote server first and use its IP address to visit any website or connect to any app. As a result, the webmasters see the remote IP you are connected to and usually have no idea where you truly are.
Hide Your Browsing Activity
As mentioned earlier, governments, hackers, and Internet Service Providers can all access your browsing activity information. In fact, your domain visit history is stored on your WiFi router. When you connect using a VPN, your connection is made to the remote server first. As far as trackers are concerned, any activity you engage in from the remote server is beyond their reach.
Change Your Location
As the internet has become more globalized, more and more services are getting geo-restricted for a variety of reasons. This is especially true in the content streaming space. For example, the British BBC has licensed exclusive streaming rights to Netflix for some of its shows. As a result, those shows are only available on the paid platform in the United States. But British visitors of BBC’s free streaming site can watch the shows with ad breaks.
With a VPN, you have the ability to connect with a server abroad within a specific geographic area. When you browse a website with a British VPN connection, you can stream content available only in Britain. Furthermore, you can use a VPN to change your location in the eyes of a geo-restricted app. For instance, Tinder restricts people from looking for matches in other countries. But with a VPN, you can easily swipe for matches in almost any country in the world.
Cons of VPNs
In this section, you will learn about the various cons of using a VPN.
Location May Get Leaked
While VPNs encrypt your information to mask it from most web-owners, tech companies are developing tools to detect whether one is connecting to their service directly or via proxy. In some instances, the website does not allow users to access their services if the user is found to be using a VPN to connect to the service.
Since a VPN’s quality relies heavily on the provider, certain VPNs are so transparent the website owner not only finds out that you are using a proxy but can also see your original location.
How to combat this drawback: Of course, you don’t want to leave the strength of your privacy protocols up to a VPN provider you have not tried before. That is why we recommend that you get a VPN provider like ExpressVPN, which is trusted by hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.
Additionally, you can install an RTC shield, which creates a fake location underneath your Proxy location, so even if there is a leak, a location that is not your actual one gets revealed.
While DuckDuckGo is free to use, most quality VPNs cost money. Free VPNs are the ones that get easily detected and may do more harm than good. VPN providers that charge for their service are usually backed by a legitimate business with legal paperwork. On the other hand, free VPNs can be created by any coder, which means you are trusting a single individual with protecting your privacy online.
It is possible that in a bid to protect your privacy from webmasters and ISPs, you are handing over access to your device to a hacker. This makes free VPNs and newly launched VPNs highly suspicious, leaving behind only the leading VPN providers like nordVPN and ExpressVPN, both of which charge a fee.
While paying for a service one uses is not generally considered a disadvantage, when comparing it to DuckDuckGo, which is absolutely free, VPNs do seem to be at a disadvantage.
Local Services May Get Disturbed
We take for granted the services provided to us locally by online platforms, from the homepage of Google being curated to match your particular town to the delivery service that knows where to ship your products. When you use a VPN, you make it almost impossible for the platforms to figure out where you are. As a result, a search for “pet shops near me” gets you results for pet shops in Belgrade.
Which One Should You Use?
The nature of DuckDuckGo’s service cluster and VPNs is so different that they aren’t exactly mutually exclusive. In other words, you can pick one or both. It is possible to keep Google from tracking your activity by using an extension provided by DuckDuckGo while hiding your location from people who may try to find out which websites you have been visiting.
Therefore, it is not that one is better than the other but is that you should use the one that suits your needs.
Who Should Use DuckDuckGo?
Below are some of the reasons why you may be interested in using one of DuckDuckGo’s services.
You Don’t Want Big Tech Companies Tracking Your Every Move
While Facebook and other services track your location, the websites you visit outside of Facebook, and even your mood patterns, DuckDuckGo’s privacy app or the chrome extension will help stop such tracking by blocking cookies. Cookies are a term that refers to files that can be tracked by websites upon your subsequent visits and modified.
You Don’t Trust Cloud Security
Celebrities’ clouds have been famously hacked, and it would be reasonable not to trust foreign servers to host your browsing history and search habits even in encrypted files. If it is important to you that your activities are privately stored only for your use on your computer or laptop, then DuckDuckGo’s browser and chrome extension would be two services you may be interested in.
You Want to Make Multiple Accounts on Social Media
Social media can be a bit too restrictive in that a joke you made or even a post you shared can lead to your account getting banned. As a solution, many people have backup accounts. Because of how much Tech companies have in terms of a hold on social media users, you can’t create multiple accounts without the platform knowing it’s you, the same person.
If Instagram wants to ban you from logging in, it can use a combination of your IP data and cookies to ban every account you create to login. That is why one of the best uses of DuckDuckGo’s extension is to keep big tech companies from knowing who you are so that you can make five to ten backup accounts if you need to.
Who Should Use a VPN?
You may use a VPN in addition to or in the place of DuckDuckGo if the following resonates with you.
You Want to Access Services That Are Geo-Restricted
Do you want to watch Netflix shows available only in a specific country? Or maybe you want to browse a specific country’s Tinder match options; either way, masking your location using VPN is the number one way to access services that are restricted within your country.
You Want to Unblock Websites That Are Blocked in Your Country
In certain countries, the telecommunication providers are nationalized businesses. As a result, the government controls which websites can or cannot be accessed. While this is rare in democratic countries, employers can do the same within the network they pay for.
So whether you are in China trying to access an American social media platform or in an American office trying to use the company WiFi to browse memes, using a VPN will bypass the restriction by connecting first to a proxy, then to any site you please. Just be careful the VPN is high-quality and does not leak what you are up to.
You Want to Protect Your Identity Online
While big tech companies track you, they often don’t single out and identify you. However, generally, anyone can track you online provided the right tools because you leave behind a trail of your visits by placing your IP information with every domain you visit.
A VPN connection changes this IP address so that you leave behind not a trail of your own IP but of a temporary IP that you aren’t associated with as soon as you log off the VPN.
You Don’t Mind Paying for Good Service
This is perhaps the biggest differentiator between DuckDuckGo and VPN providers. If you are only interested in free services, we advise that you only use DuckDuckGo. Using a free VPN is dangerous because most reliable VPN providers need to charge in order to sustain their business.
Therefore many “free” VPN providers are offering a subpar service that leaks your location. But if you don’t mind paying for a high-quality VPN like ExpressVPN or NordVPN, then a VPN is a good fit for you.
DuckDuckGo and VPNs both help you keep your online activity private, but both rely on different methods that have their individual strengths and weaknesses. As the services aren’t contradictory, you can opt for both, so it is recommended that you invest in a good VPN and use DuckDuckGo’s extension for maximum security.
However, it is important that you realize that hiding your location from websites you visit will make your browsing experience less localized, albeit more private.
- Harvard: Duckduckgo: Reinventing the Internet Search
- FTC: Government Surveillance and Internet Search Behavior
- US Department of Justice: Justice Department Sues Monopolist Google for Violating Antitrust Laws: Google Complaint
- DOC: Comments of Duck Duck Go, Inc.
- FTC: Virtual Private Network (VPN) Apps
- Energy: Instructions for Using Virtual Private Network (VPN)
- CMU: How to Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
- Restore Privacy: How to Fix WebRTC Leaks (All Browsers)