DuckDuckGo isn’t just a private alternative to Google and Bing’s web search. It has a built-in online mapping solution designed with privacy in mind. If you want to leave Google, you don’t have to stick around for Google Maps.
What Can DuckDuckGo Maps Do?
You’ll find DuckDuckGo Maps as a search filter at the top of the page when you perform a search in DuckDuckGo. You may also see maps appear alongside results, especially if you are searching for a place name.
Searching for a local business like “pizza near me” tailors search results to your approximate location. Electing to turn on precise results using the map pin icon in the top-right corner of the map will give you even more accurate local business results. You can search for a place, then use the Directions button to get step-by-step instructions for driving or walking.
You have two views to choose from: regular map view and satellite imagery. You’ll see some information about what you’re searching for to the left of the map, which you can collapse by clicking the small arrow.
The Problem With Google Maps
Google Maps is probably the best free mapping tool on the web. You can use it to find businesses nearby, get directions to where you’re going, check the traffic before you leave, and see exactly what your destination looks like thanks to Street View. Bing Maps plays second fiddle to Google in this space, but it too is a capable mapping tool.
Unfortunately, your use of these services comes at a price: your privacy. Google and Bing attempt to gather as much information about their users as possible. They do this so that they can learn as much about you as possible so that they can show you more relevant advertisements (ones that you’ll actually click on).
But the privacy concerns don’t end there. Both Google and Bing also use trackers in an attempt to track your browsing activity across the web. This is again done to gather as much information about you as possible so that marketing can be tailored to your interests.
If you’ve gone browsing for a product only to have it show up in banner advertisements for weeks afterward, then you’ve seen this mechanism in action. Unless you go out of your way to avoid services that do this, you’re constantly being subjected to it.
Google Maps, as an extension of Google, is subject to the same data collection practices as any of Google’s other services. This means that anywhere you search for is stored against your name and used for marketing. In 2018, it was even revealed that Google had, in some cases, been storing location data even after users had told it not to.
DuckDuckGo: Private Web Search, Private Map Search
DuckDuckGo is a search engine that stores as little information as possible about its users. Searches are immediately anonymized, and there are no trackers permitted (third party or otherwise). Since protecting user privacy is DuckDuckGo’s unique selling point, Google and Bing were not an option for providing maps and local search results.
But DuckDuckGo is a small search engine. There’s no way it has the resources to develop its own mapping solution from scratch. Even if the search engine did build something, it would be a monumental task to make it competitive. So DuckDuckGo started looking for another solution, which is where Apple Maps comes in.
Creating DuckDuckGo Maps With MapKit
Since building a bespoke mapping solution was never an option, DuckDuckGo instead decided to leverage Apple’s MapKit JS API, first revealed at WWDC 2018. In short, MapKit JS provides developers with the tools they need to build websites that make use of the underlying technology that powers Apple Maps.
MapKit was chosen because it doesn’t require DuckDuckGo to disclose any information to Apple during use. As DuckDuckGo explains in a post on its blog:
Apple also talks a strong privacy game when it comes to the use of Maps (and many of its other features). The hardware giant promises:
“The data that Maps collects while you use the app—like search terms, navigation routing, and traffic information—is associated with random identifiers, not your Apple ID. These identifiers reset themselves as you use the app to ensure the best possible experience and to improve Maps.”
DuckDuckGo even has considerations for using approximate and precise locations in search results. By default, all results are approximate until you click on the map pin icon in the top-right corner of the page (or toggle precise location on in search results).
The search engine has stated that it uses standard geolocation lookup using an IP address to resolve your location without storing or revealing this information to third parties. In documentation explaining how DuckDuckGo handles localized results, the search engine states:
As stated by DuckDuckGo: “Even if you opt-in to sharing a more accurate location, your searches will still be completely anonymous.”
One interesting caveat to MapKit JS is that most applications that use it are limited to 250,000 map calls and 25,000 service calls each day. DuckDuckGo does not seem to be subject to these same limits, which may suggest that the search engine has cut a special deal with Apple.
Privacy at the Cost of Convenience and Features
While Apple Maps has come a long way since its questionable launch alongside iOS 6 in 2012, it still can’t compete with Google or Bing in terms of features or search results. The service is primarily available via dedicated apps to users of Apple devices like the iPhone and Mac, and this severely limits the number of people who can use it.
Without the huge number of searches performed on competing platforms, there’s less (anonymous) data to pull from in terms of improving the service. Businesses may think to update their Google Maps listings long before they consider doing so for Apple Maps. And then there’s the fact that MapKit JS isn’t the full Apple Maps experience at all.
Apple Maps for Mac, iPhone, and iPad allows you to save favorite places and transfer routes to other devices, neither of which is possible using DuckDuckGo Maps. This isn’t an extension of Apple’s service, it’s an entirely separate service that leverages the underlying technology.
Many of the features you’d find in standalone Apple Maps apps are also missing, including Apple’s impressive 3D photogrammetry, street-level photography, traffic information, and directions for public transport or cycling.
Google and Bing offer many of these features in their web apps and via dedicated apps for mobile users. It’s also more difficult to use DuckDuckGo Maps for navigation, since there is no support for turn-by-turn directions, even using the DuckDuckGo apps for Android and iPhone (though iPhone users can tap the “Navigate in Apple Maps” to transfer the route to the native app, which works perfectly.
It’s also worth noting that you may experience more inconsistencies with routes and results compared to more frequently used map services like Google Maps.
A Private Mapping Solution That Works
Even though DuckDuckGo Maps is built on Apple’s restrictive API, it’s a commendable effort to create a free mapping tool that provides both localized results on a map and directions for driving and walking.
Apple will hopefully improve and expand the API over time, which will mean more features and better results. Thinking about making the switch to DuckDuckGo? Learn more about the search engine that protects your privacy.
Or, if DuckDuckGo Maps isn’t what you’re looking for, try OpenStreetMap. It’s an open, community-created mapping solution. DuckDuckGo previously used OpenStreetMap before it switched to Apple Maps in 2019.
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