Eli Wolnerman


Alternative search engines are exactly what they sound like — alternatives to the main search engines such as Google, Bing, and Ask. Two alternative web search engines that can be used are Blekko, www.blekko.com, and DuckDuckGo, www.duckduckgo.com. Both of these search engines take advantage of the major search engines, which were discussed in the previous chapters, and add their own unique strategies to help the user.

Blekko’s main claim can be found in its slogan. On the Blekko homepage the quote, “the spam-free search engine,” indicates the sites’ true intentions. In addition to being spam-free, Blekko has a unique tool called a slashtag that allows users to modify search queries effectively. DuckDuckGo has a quote in the bottom-left corner of its homepage that says, “We believe in better search AND no tracking,” which indicates that it is an alternative site that doesn’t monitor search queries and gives people privacy.

Both of these search engines are responses to the major search engines. Many people have a problem with search engines that do spam advertising, and search engines that track query history. Blekko and DuckDuckGo are intending to give people a better sense of online privacy while still obtaining helpful and successful search results. People should use Blekko if they do not want to deal with the plethora of advertisements that are common on the main search sites. People should look to DuckDuckGo if they are wary of their searches being monitored, another thing that is common of the major search engine sites. These sites, again, exist as a direct reaction to unavoidable flaws of the main search engines that people do not want to deal with – the use of advertisements and the lack of privacy.

Blekko instructions

Blekko’s mission

Blekko’s mission is the following: “Blekko is a consumer facing search engine focused on delivering high quality, relevant, spam-free search results. We believe search should be open, transparent and collaborative. For this reason we combine traditional algorithmic search with the expertise of our users and partners to eliminate spam and deliver results from only the most reputable, best quality sites. This combination creates a highly differentiated editorial search experience that is fundamentally changing search and content discovery online.”

Blekko exists to help the user find pre-judged high-quality results. Blekko gives an editorial note that describes the ways in which it is a unique site that is focused on providing the user with information rather than simply matching search queries with results. For starters, Blekko finds the use of human judgment to be very important when assessing the validity of a website. For that reason, Blekko uses source-based as opposed to link-based authority. In addition, Blekko utilizes human curation for its websites so people can go to lists of sites that others have created in order to find information. Blekko also stresses the fact that it is spam free. Not only is spam absent from Blekko’s search results page, but Blekko also does not return search results from sites that are simply trying to advertise to the people who visit them. Blekko is extremely focused on providing the users with the information they are searching for, and nothing more.

How to use

Using Blekko is almost the same as using any of the major search engines. Blekko has many of the same results as Bing because it uses the Bing search engine. The main difference, Blekko argues, is that it ranks websites, therefore it will return the higher ranking sites to the user at the top of the list.

Blekko has many of the same search modifiers as the main search engines except for the “OR” modifier. You can still do a simple search with no modifiers, put quotes around phrases, and put the “-” sign in front of something to negate the term. However, because Blekko doesn’t use the “OR” modifier, it will give the same results as Bing, which has ESPN and Amazon as top returns, if you try to use “OR.”

What is important, and unique to Blekko, is something called a slashtag. “Slashtags are Blekko’s way of giving you access to the full power of our search engine, without making you wade through lots of graphical UI or menus.” Essentially, a slashtag is a “/” that you place in the query before a word, and it modifies the search for you.

Slashtags are broken down into four categories: utility slashtags, topical slashtags, algorithmic slashtags, and shortcut slashtags.

Utility Slashtag: The utility slashtag is actually very simple. All that you do is type “/ps=(any number)” for any number and the results shown on the initial return page will be limited to that number. For example, if you were to do the search query [water /ps=3] the return would show the top three results for the search [water].

Topical Slashtag: The topical slashtags are built by human editors. For this reason, the topical slashtags “power Blekko’s human curation and anti-spam features” (). An example of a high quality topical slashtag is the health slashtag. /health has over 200 websites that others think have high quality health information. There is an entire slashtag directory that has many examples of the topical slashtags that people have used in the past. In the slashtag for health, I looked up the flu vaccine. The results were actually very good, and returned some high quality results.

Algorithmic Slashtag: The algorithmic slashtags are an indicator for the search to specifically look for types of websites, such as blogs or forums. All you have to do is put “/blog” or “/forums” at the end of a query, and the system will find sites that fit into the category you are searching for.

Shortcut Slashtag: The shortcut slashtags give people access to third party resources such as weather, maps, images, WolframAlpha, and eBay. To utilize shortcut slashtags, all you have to do is put the slashtag in the query, and it will find what you want. For example [Chicago /weather] will give you the weather in Chicago, Illinois for the next five days, whereas [Chicago weather] gives you links to some restaurants in Chicago, a map of where the restaurants are, but also the five-day forecast at the top. The shortcut slashtag just gives you the answer to particular questions without having to enter a site.

Slashtags also have boosting and negating features. The boosting feature is a way to search the web without using a slashtag, but making sure there is an indication for which sites would have been listed in the curated site. The way you boost a slashtag is by adding a “+” sign in front of the slashtag, so for the health slashtag, it would look like “+/health”. Boosting allows for some sites that Blekko ranks highly to be included in the search, even though they are not in the slashtag. Negating a slashtag is similar to negating words in a simple query. If, for instance, you don’t want to return any search results that are on blog sites, you can put “-/blog” in your query, and it will get rid of blog results. I searched for the flu vaccine again, but this time I did a boosted slashtag to see if the results changed. (They only did slightly, but all of the top results were still in /health)

The slashtag is the do-it-all query modifier for Blekko. It works well, and it is easy to use.

Comparison with Google Web search

The slashtag is the main difference between a Google search and a Blekko search. Through its slashtag, Blekko found a way to simplify search modifiers while still returning helpful results. In this section, I am going to go through the strengths and weaknesses of Google when compared to Blekko, and show some screen shots of what the best search looks like.

Strengths of Blekko:

  1. The slashtag is very easy to use. It makes searching much simpler because almost anything you want to modify simply takes a slashtag.
  2. The topical slashtag leads to results that have human curators. When searching for a particular topic, adding a pre-existing topical slashtag to a query will give results that someone has found useful when doing a similar search. This can decrease the amount of work you have to do when searching.
  3. There are no advertisements. This makes things less annoying.

Strengths of Google:

  1. Google has an “OR” operator. This is an underrated search modifier, but it allows for the searches to have synonyms be included in the search that website writers may have forgotten.
  2. Google search modifiers allow the search to be more specific, in general. If you are looking for a particular type of website that indicates certain information, it is easier to use the modifiers in Google. There are more modifiers, so it allows for you to get the exact type of information you want.
  3. You can use Google for your everyday searches. If you just want to find some quick information, Google is the unquestioned leader in providing the websites that will lead you to what you want using a basic query.

Weaknesses of Blekko:

  1. The “OR” operator does not exist on Blekko. This is a similar problem to Bing, but it is definitely a problem because many people learn how to search on Google, but adding “OR” gives people almost no related results.
  2. The slashtag directory is not fully inclusive. For instance, if I do a boosted search for [“vinyl records” +/music] none of the results had been curated. This was not much more helpful than doing a simple search for [vinyl records]. (The sites that came up were different, but the ones on the second query were honestly better.)
  3. If you don’t use a slashtag, it doesn’t benefit you to use this site. This means that for simple, everyday searches, Blekko isn’t the best site to use.

Weaknesses of Google

  1. Google does not have human curators. Not that humans know much more than a machine anyway, but having somebody else verify a site just adds to its credibility and likeliness to help.
  2. Google has advertisements. This is the way Google makes its money, but having the websites can often be confusing to people searching for particular topics (especially when they match the query so well).

Google vs. Blekko

The following are the results from a blog search for the harmful effects of the flu vaccine on people.

Because Blekko uses only sites that it deems to be high quality, it does not include the recent blogs posted about the harmful effects of the flu vaccine. Also, while it does have arguably more reputable sites, the most recent post is from over three years ago, and a lot has changed since then regarding health. Human curators working for the good of the internet have only limited time and motivation. For that reason, the currency and relevancy of Google’s results make it the better option for many situations.

How to get the most out of it

You will easily get the most out of Blekko by using the slashtag operator. It is an all-inclusive operator that allows the user to specify searches through Blekko’s human curators and ranking system. While Blekko does not always give the best results, it is very important to remember that it does not have spam (which can decrease the headache substantially for some people) and the sites have an added credibility (which decreases the work in searching).

DuckDuckGo instructions

Video screenshot

The above image is from the video on the DuckDuckGo About page and it highlights the three specific things the search engine is trying to do. DuckDuckGo gives zero-click answers to people at the top of every search that might give people what they need without having to further delve into the search. DuckDuckGo also isn’t covered with spam on the search results. And, arguably, the very most important components to DuckDuckGo is the fact that it doesn’t track its users. DuckDuckGo offers people real privacy, which is something that very few other search engines can do. Also, DuckDuckGo has no next page. What this means is that, in order to look through more results, all you have to do is continue scrolling down and the results will load. This is a really useful feature because it will constantly load results as you continue down the page. DuckDuckGo prides itself on being highly customizable. All of the things DuckDuckGo really thrives at are meant to make the experience easy for the user.

How to use

The search techniques you can use with DuckDuckGo are almost identical to the searching techniques that you would use with Google. However, using the “OR” search modifier does lead to similar problems to both Bing and Blekko. For all intents and purposes, searching on DuckDuckGo is the same as searching on Bing. However, DuckDuckGo does offer a really cool search tool using the “!” mark. DuckDuckGo calls the use of this modifier a “!bang“. Using the “!” modifier allows a person to search on one of thousands of different websites through the DuckDuckGo homepage. Some other sites even have their own shortcuts, such as “!w” for Wikipedia and “!a” for Amazon. The following is an example of searching for the Gagnam Style Youtube video through DuckDuckGo. (Youtube has the shortcut “!yt” for DuckDuckGo)

Press Enter

DuckDuckGo also does a really good job with its interface. When you search for anything, the symbol from the website is displayed on the left. This allows people who recognize certain symbols to click on them on the side. In addition, DuckDuckGo has a feature where it will continually load websites as you scroll down. This is yet another good feature of DuckDuckGo’s interface that benefits the user.

The related searches on the side also provide some very useful alternatives to searches because it allows you to simply add a keyword to the search. This is less invasive to the original query, and I find it to be slightly more helpful than a complete search alteration when I have a specific topic in mind.

The zero-click answers that DuckDuckGo provides might be the most beneficial use of a search on this engine. DuckDuckGo provides an instant answer to almost any question right at the top of the search results. Very often, this will give enough information that you will not need to continue the search.

Below is an example of what a search return looks like for [flu vaccine]. Notice the interface, related searches, and zero-click answer.

Comparison with Google Web search

Strengths of DuckDuckGo:

  1. DuckDuckGo does not track the search history of its users. This leads to much more privacy for the users, and since that fact is included in its promotions, it is an important part of DuckDuckGo. Many people desire a private search engine that can compete with the more popular search engines out there.
  2. You can search within other sites through the DuckDuckGo search tool. This just adds ease to the searching process and makes DuckDuckGo more of a one-stop website for searching needs.
  3. DuckDuckGo’s zero-click responses are very helpful and high quality. Oftentimes, people only want a simple explanation of a topic and DuckDuckGo makes it easy so people don’t have to enter another website to find their answer.

Strengths of Google:

  1. Again, Google has the “OR” operator. This is important for synonyms and other search strategies.
  2. Google returns better results than Bing, therefore it returns better results than DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo is somewhat limited from becoming the very best search engine because it uses Bing. Not that Bing is bad, but Google is the go-to search engine for a reason.

Weaknesses of DuckDuckGo:

  1. Uses Bing for its searching algorithm. Because of this, DuckDuckGo does not use the “OR” operator very well.
  2. If your internet is not good, the results as you scroll down the page can be glitchy. This would be true of opening any page, however if you are constantly scrolling down, you are constantly using internet.

Weaknesses of Google:

  1. You cannot search through other websites using Google. This means you have to physically type in the web address to get to the site and then continue your search from there.
  2. Google does not always offer a quick answer response to queries. When the topic or person is famous enough, Google provides a zero-click description. However, this is not always the case, and people, therefore, have to go into websites to find the information.

How to get the most out of it

The DuckDuckGo informational video recommends that everybody set DuckDuckGo as their default search browser for a week before they make any claims. I did this, and I definitely believe that DuckDuckGo delivers on being an easy-to-use search engine. There are many times where I have a quick question that I need to look up. When I type it into DuckDuckGo, the zero-click response gives me that answer very quickly and with less effort than Google. In addition to this, I can search a Youtube video right from the DuckDuckGo search bar. Not that it is extremely difficult to go to the Youtube website, but with DuckDuckGo I don’t have to because of the !bang modifier. These two tools are very easy to use and implement into your use of the internet. And, for me, the fact that DuckDuckGo maintains my privacy is a bonus that puts it over the top.


Blekko and DuckDuckGo are great sites if people have extremely specific desires with their search engines. In particular, if a person is trying to avoid spam, that person would likely look to use Blekko. On a similar note, if a person were looking for a search engine that keeps their searches private, DuckDuckGo would be a great choice because that is one of their main features. Where these two sites differ is their best uses.

Blekko can be best used for a research project where people need to go through a large number of sources to pick out the best sites. Since they have human curators already going through many of the websites, the returns on Blekko (especially with the use of a slashtag) make the process easier for research. Blekko, however, does not make things easier to use than Google, and therefore would come much later in the researching process.

DuckDuckGo, on the other hand, is very useful for quick and easy information that people need in their everyday lives. DuckDuckGo cuts out a step or two for people who are looking for certain information, and that is definitely a benefit for its users. In addition, it keeps the searches private. The privacy factor is important to many people, so that is another draw to DuckDuckGo that it has over all of its major competitors.

Only DuckDuckGo has been useful for me. I personally put DuckDuckGo as my default search engine on my internet browser, almost to force myself to use something other than Google. I didn’t do this because I think DuckDuckGo is necessarily a better search engine than Google (or even Bing) but the quick “zero-click” answer feature has been really helpful. What I have found is that when I am really doing a major search for a research project, I will go to the Google site itself no matter what. For that reason, I don’t need it to be my default search engine. However, when I have a question that needs a quick answer, I will be more likely to just use whatever search engine comes up when I open the internet (because they will most likely give me similar answers). Since I don’t have to enter another site after my search to get a description of my search on DuckDuckGo, I have found it to save me some time. This simple trick is the only way I have been able to implement these alternative search engines into my daily life successfully. I am currently trying to remember that I can search for things through DuckDuckGo on other sites, but that is a harder thing to implement into my daily internet activity (There is no reason to go back once I’m already at Youtube to search on DuckDuckGo, but if I remember to use the !bang I think it’s really cool). Blekko can be good for research projects only, but DuckDuckGo can be a useful tool for everyday life.


To Google or not to Google? Copyright © 2013 by Eli Wolnerman. All Rights Reserved.