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Should Apple buy search engine DuckDuckGo?

One analyst says they should. Let’s think through this.

By John Sherrod , written on June 10, 2020

From The Apple Desk

Financial analysts are always urging Apple to spend some of its massive pile of cash on large company acquisitions. Apple rarely does that. They do often purchase small companies, usually to gain access to their talent and intellectual property. 

Apple’s $3 billion acquisition of Beats in 2014 was a rare exception to that. Analysts have urged Apple to make outlandishly large purchases like buying Netflix or Disney. Now an analyst has suggested that Apple should purchase DuckDuckGo, the fourth largest search engine. It’s… at least an interesting suggestion? Let’s think through it.

It’s estimated that Google pays Apple somewhere between $7–9 billion per year to make Google the default search engine in Safari on every Mac, iPhone, and iPad sold. You can change your default search engine to Bing, or Yahoo, or DuckDuckGo, but out of the box, it’s Google. So Apple would have to find the acquisition of DuckDuckGo to be compelling enough to walk away from that massive annual cash injection from Google. It’s possible they could recoup at least part of that via ad revenue, but still. That’s a lot of cash to say no to.

One of the biggest reasons I could see for Apple owning their own search engine would be to cut one of the last major ties that Apple has with Google. There was a time when the two companies worked pretty closely together, but a lot of those bridges were burned, which is why it’s been years since Google has provided maps data to Apple’s Maps app. Despite a rocky start, Apple has managed to make Apple Maps a really solid product. Also, Apple likes to control as much of its destiny as possible and is institutionally averse to depending on other companies.

It’s hard for me to imagine that they’d retain the name DuckDuckGo. It’s an awkward name and not a well-known brand. I saw someone on Twitter muse about whether they’d bring it under the Siri brand. Currently, when you go to Siri.com, it takes you to a part of Apple’s website that talks about all the things Siri can do. But what if that were the URL to Apple’s in-house search engine as well? That way all of Apple’s search could fall under the Siri brand. Perhaps Apple could even retire the “Spotlight” name that it uses for search on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

Apple and DuckDuckGo are also aligned in the area of privacy. Apple has made a huge deal out of protecting user privacy in the Tim Cook era, admirably distinguishing Apple from many of its tech industry peers, most notably Google. DuckDuckGo’s big pitch is that it’s all about user privacy and that they don’t track you or sell any of your data to advertisers. So there’s already a key area of symmetry between Apple and DuckDuckGo.

And though right now DuckDuckGo is the fourth most-used search engine, an Apple acquisition would massively raise its profile. Being the default search engine on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad could conceivably bring it up to number two. They’d likely never eclipse Google, but they might give them their best competition in years, which is something consumers would benefit from. The biggest downside to DuckDuckGo being the default search engine is that it’s just not as good at returning relevant results as Google’s algorithm is, and likely will never be, even if Apple dumps a lot of money into it. But… it might honestly be good enough for most users, and the ones who prefer Google’s search results would still be able to go into their settings and make Google the default search engine.