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New Zeekly search engine offers privacy when using the Web

Jeffrey Sisk says he created Zeekly because he thinks companies should not share your information with government agencies like the National Security Agency.
Published Sep. 21, 2013

HOMOSASSA — Jeffrey Sisk spends most days on his lanai overlooking the woods, working on a computer. His dog, Simon, a Shih Tzu, sits at his feet. His TV stays tuned to Fox News or CNN.

Sisk was outraged by news that the U.S. government is monitoring the email and Internet activity of American citizens, information that was leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Sisk felt strongly that the government should not spy on average, unsuspecting citizens.

Sisk, 49, quickly got to work creating Zeekly.com, a search engine that protects the privacy of its users. Unlike Google, Yahoo and other search engines, it doesn't keep track of websites people visit or the keywords they search. And because Zeekly is encrypted, Internet and phone providers can't decipher the communication between a user's Web browser and Zeekly's servers.

"If I got a court order tomorrow, I can honestly tell them we're not storing the data,'' he said. "There's nothing for the government to get.''

Zeekly joins an expanding field of search engines devoted to privacy, an issue high on many people's minds since the Snowden story. The largest, DuckDuckGo, saw usage jump to 4 million daily searches this month from 1.4 million a year ago. After some mentions on news and techie sites, Zeekly reached a total of 1 million page views after the first week.

DuckDuckGo founder and chief executive officer Gabriel Weinberg said all the talk about Snowden created an opportunity for DuckDuckGo users to spread the word about the site and its usefulness. Many people accustomed to Google switched to DuckDuckGo as their primary search engine.

"There are many good reasons why people don't want to be tracked, and it's not just the government requests, which are serious. It's also the commercial ads,'' he said. "People are noticing they are following them around. It's kind of creepy and annoying, and it's getting worse.''

Internet security and policy experts say Web privacy isn't just a fad fueled by the latest news of government snooping. But whether these sites can become mainstream remains to be seen.

"I'm not sure if these websites will ever replace companies like Google, which have woven a range of other services into Web search, but I do think they will do very well,'' said Hibah Hussain, a policy program associate of the Open Technology Institute at the Washington-based New America Foundation think tank. "Hopefully, they can give incentives to the larger players to pay attention to privacy issues.''

• • •

A Georgia native, Sisk took an interest in computers as a teenager but focused on music early in his career. For years he ran a recording studio in Atlanta and, during the mid 1980s, worked as a stage manager for the Atlanta Rhythm Section, a Southern rock band known for its hit song So Into You.

Concerned about the up and down nature of the music business, he started working for a staffing company and dabbling in computers. He bought a book on programming — Sams Teach Yourself ASP.NET 4 in 24 Hours by Scott Mitchell — and three months later, in 2000, launched a job website for doctors called PhysicianWork. It went on to make millions of dollars and had 65,000 job postings at its peak.

The site was hit hard by the recession and, in 2011, Sisk sold it to a group of investors that also owned Find.com. Sisk stayed on as a consultant to develop business options for Find.com, which included a search engine. But when the funding for it fell through, he regained ownership of PhysicianWork and began looking for a new challenge.

Sisk's Zeekly moment came when news broke in June about Snowden and the government's surveillance program. On Aug. 1, Zeekly was born, pulling in results from Google, Bing, Yahoo and other sites. He and his wife, Patty, spent hours brainstorming the name, deciding on Zeekly because it had a good ring and started with a strong, underused letter. They liked that it worked as a verb. "Let's Zeekly it!''

Privacy, while a focus of the site, is just one aspect. Sisk plans to add email (like gmail), a Zeekly home page with weather and news, and its own Web index using a spider called Zeeklybot. His goal is to make Zeekly such a reliable search engine that the privacy factor becomes secondary.

Sisk says Zeekly has advantages over other privacy search engines, because all of its searches are protected. DuckDuckGo, for example, protects its Web searches, but any search for an image or video directs users to a site subject to its own privacy policy.

As the site evolves, Zeekly hopes to make money off pay-per-click and banner advertising, like other search engines. Zeekly can feed ads to users as they are doing searches, but there is no permanent record of what they looked for. That means an ad for Nordstrom could pop up when you view a pair of shoes, but you won't be bombarded with shoe ads for weeks.

Despite its fast rise, Zeekly hasn't been criticism-free. Phil Bradley, who writes a blog about Internet searching, said he liked Zeekly's comprehensive list of search options — news, sports, Amazon, iTunes, audio, Wiki, etc. — but he wasn't impressed by its search rankings. And when he typed in his name and images, nearly all were naked photos of a famous porn star with the same name. (Google, by contrast, shows a mix of people named Phil Bradley and just a few of the nude actor.)

Sisk started the site with $35,000, mostly in contributions from family, friends and Zeekly users. A crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo seeks to raise $25,000 to add features to the site and expand its reach.

In his pitch for donations, Sisk describes Zeekly as a "David and Goliath story of the little guys going up against the big guys and winning.'' Even if it captures a tiny fraction of Google's 100 billion searches a month, it could be successful, he said.

"I think this can eventually compete with Google,'' he said. "In my mind, there is no reason that Zeekly can't be on every computer.''

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110 or @susan_thurston on Twitter.

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