sl/plan9 OK, uriel.

title: We can do better than DuckDuckGo date: 2020-11-17

outputs: [html, gemtext]

DuckDuckGo is one of the long-time darlings of the technophile’s pro-privacy recommendations, and in fact the search engine that I use myself on the daily. They certainly present a more compelling option than many of the incumbents, like Google or Bing. Even so, DuckDuckGo is not good enough, and we ought to do better.

I have three grievances with DuckDuckGo:

  1. It’s not open source. Almost all of DDG’s software is proprietary, and they’ve demonstrated gross incompetence in privacy in what little software they have made open source. Who knows what else is going on in the proprietary code?
  2. DuckDuckGo is not a search engine. It’s more aptly described as a search engine frontend. They do handle features like bangs and instant answers internally, but their actual search results come from third-parties like Bing. They don’t operate a crawler for their search results, and are not independent.
  3. The search results suck! The authoritative sources for anything I want to find are almost always buried beneath 2-5 results from content scrapers and blogspam. This is also true of other search engines like Google. Search engines are highly vulnerable to abuse and they aren’t doing enough to address it.

There are some FOSS attempts to do better here, but they all fall flat. searX is also a false search engine — that is, they serve someone else’s results. YaCy has their own crawler, but the distributed design makes results untolerably slow, poor quality, and vulnerable to abuse, and it’s missing strong central project leadership.

We need a real, working FOSS search engine, complete with its own crawler.

Here’s how I would design it.

First, YaCy-style decentralization is way too hard to get right, especially when a search engine project already has a lot of Very Hard problems to solve. Federation is also very hard in this situation — queries will have to consult most instances in order to get good quality results, or a novel sharding algorithm will have to be designed, and either approach will have to be tolerant of nodes appearing and disappearing at any time. Not to mention it’d be slow! Several unsolved problems with federation and decentralziation would have to be addressed on top of building a search engine in the first place.

So, a SourceHut-style approach is better. 100% of the software would be free software, and third parties would be encouraged to set up their own installations. It would use standard protocols and formats where applicable, and accept patches from the community. However, the database would still be centralized, and even if programmable access were provided, it would not be with an emphasis on decentralization or shared governance. It might be possible to design tools which help third-parties bootstrap their indexes, and create a community of informal index sharing, but that’s not the focus here.

It would also need its own crawler, and probably its own indexer. I’m not convinced that any of the existing FOSS solutions in this space are quite right for this problem. Crucially, I would not have it crawling the entire web from the outset. Instead, it should crawl a whitelist of domains, or “tier 1” domains. These would be the limited mainly to authoritative or high-quality sources for their respective specializations, and would be weighed upwards in search results. Pages that these sites link to would be crawled as well, and given tier 2 status, recursively up to an arbitrary N tiers. Users who want to find, say, a blog post about a subject rather than the documentation on that subject, would have to be more specific: “$subject blog posts”.

An advantage of this design is that it would be easy for anyone to take the software stack and plop it on their own servers, with their own whitelist of tier 1 domains, to easily create a domain-specific search engine. Independent groups could create search engines which specialize in academia, open standards, specific fandoms, and so on. They could tweak their precise approach to indexing, tokenization, and so on to better suit their domain.

We should also prepare the software to boldly lead the way on new internet standards. Crawling and indexing non-HTTP data sources (Gemini? Man pages? Linux distribution repositories?), supporting non-traditional network stacks (Tor? Yggdrasil? cjdns?) and third-party name systems (OpenNIC?), and anything else we could leverage our influence to give a leg up on.

There’s a ton of potential in this domain which is just sitting on the floor right now. The main problem is: who’s going to pay for it? Advertisements or paid results are not going to fly — conflict of interest. Private, paid access to search APIs or index internals is one opportunity, but it’s kind of shit and I think that preferring open data access and open APIs would be exceptionally valuable for the community.

If SourceHut eventually grows in revenue — at least 5-10× its present revenue — I intend to sponsor this as a public benefit project, with no plans for generating revenue. I am not aware of any monetization approach for a search engine which squares with my ethics and doesn’t fundamentally undermine the mission. So, if no one else has figured it out by the time we have the resources to take it on, we’ll do it.