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A great week for Google challengers Favorite #1 is DuckDuckGo. Despite the wacky name, it's a traditional search engine. In fact, part of its appeal is that it feels very traditional--so much so that it's reminiscent of what Google felt like years ago, before it started cramming more types of results into search results and formatting them in a fancier manner. The results that DuckDuckGo returns are relevant and low on spam and other unwanted links, too.As a business, DuckDuckGo is pretty much the anti-Bing. In fact, it's been operated by one full-time employee--founder Gabriel Weinberg--and a squadron of passionate volunteers. But now the site has started to grow. In fact, its staff doubled late last month, when Weinberg hired employee #1. And this week, he announced that DDG has done something perfectly normal for a tech startup: It's accepted outside financing from venture-capital firm Union Square Ventures and some other investors.Here's hoping that the infusion of cash helps the site to get bigger and better-known--but that it never loses the minimalist, straightforward personality that made it appealing in the first place.Favorite #2 is Wolfram Alpha. Launched by computing-science legend Stephen Wolfram in 2009, it's not really a search engine. Instead, it's an alternative way to learn facts--stuff like math, science, and history. Wolfram Alpha knows a lot about these topics, and it's exceptionally good at understanding questions posed to it by human beings. Ones like "What was Apple's stock price on October 14th, 2001?" And "Where was William Howard Taft born?" And "What is $175.23 in Japanese yen?"Wolfram Alpha isn't exactly obscure, but it also isn't the household name it deserves to be. So one of the things that excites me most about Apple's iPhone 4S, which goes on sale today, is that its Siri voice assistant has Wolfram Alpha baked in. Ask Siri questions, and she'll hand some of them off to Wolfram Alpha to get answers. It should help make Siri useful, and it also sounds like powerful advertising for Alpha.Neither DuckDuckGo nor Alpha is going to topple Google anytime soon--which is fine, since Google got so successful by being so good, and it remains wonderful. Still, I'd love to see both services become so well-known that I can stop introducing them to people who have never heard of them--and with any luck, this week's news will help.A hard look at the Web's 'shallows' These are the obvious manifestations of the shallows that Carr (rightly) worries about: the tendency to accept a quick and easy answer delivered over the Internet over actual thought, which is hard. Yet there are two sides to this argument: the beauty of the Internet is that it allows people, through search and/or social connections, to find like-minded individuals, be they self-tanning connoisseurs, suffering Mets fans, or 17th-century French-literature critics. These are topics that mass media can't justify covering in depth, yet the Internet allows such communities to flourish without significant investment in the means of production.In other words, you are what you click on the Internet. When the modern conveniences of the 20th century made us all fat, gyms formed around the world to help people burn the calories they used to burn simply surviving. In the 21st century, the modern conveniences of Internet information are going to force those of us concerned about our mental development to work to keep our brains agile.Given that two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are overweight, clearly Carr has a point. Yet at the same time, the Internet gives people who are truly interested in deep concepts yet unable to afford education or rich cultural experiences a chance to broaden their horizons.We don't teach kids to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool anymore. Wading into the intellectual shallows is only a bad thing if we never move on.A is for Amazon: Google's autocomplete alphabet When I was a tot, I learned my ABCs with pictures and words printed on sliced-up trees. I also watched "Sesame Street." These days, many kids are learning to spell with tablet computers. What will Google teach them? Rolled out two years ago this week, Google Instant shows suggested queries as you type. It was billed as a time saver, shaving two to five seconds off each search. Google figured that Instant would improve searches because it takes people 300 milliseconds between each keystroke, but only 30 milliseconds to glace at suggested results. Before Instant, it took people more than nine seconds on average to enter a term, according to the search engine. Some love the feature, some hate it. Some claim their reputation has suffered because of it and have sought redress in court. But one of the most intriguing things about Google Instant is how it presents a list of queries when a single letter is typed. This autocomplete alphabet, as it's known, changes frequently according to the most popular searches. Here's the latest snapshot of the alphabet, in halves:A: Amazon.comB: Bank of AmericaC: CraigslistD: DictionaryE: eBayF: FacebookG: GmailH: HotmailI: IMDBJ: JCPenneyK: Kayak.comL: LowesM: Mapquest The alphabet is of course dominated by corporations: retailers, Web services, airlines, and a certain social network. U.S. Google users sure love to shop, travel, and socialize. But different domains produce different results, as seen in this interesting experiment. In Nigeria, for instance, "a" suggests the Arsenal soccer club, while "n" brings up the NBA in Hong Kong (Netflix is lord of "n" on Britons are so concerned about rain that "w" produces plain old weather, and Indians get quotes for "q." In the U.S. Google alphabet, "dictionary" sounds generic enough, but it brings up, owned by Web giant IAC. The only thing that isn't owned by a giant corporation is No. 2 in the second half of the list, the Olympics. But that could disappear tomorrow. Related storiesGoogle must delete 'torrent' from autocomplete, court saysGoogle Instant: Search for the now generationGoogle Instant: Better but not revolutionized search "Some queries can change very frequently," a Google spokesperson says. "Even up to the minute for new trending queries, which is why you will see the query [earthquake] almost as soon as the earthquake starts, because users are searching for it immediately as they experienced it or heard about it."The search engine doesn't monitor changes in the autocomplete alphabet, and says they're the result of several factors, including high-volume queries. If you're logged into Google, personal results will appear. "Popularity is the most dominant factor, but freshness, language, location, spelling, and other signals are taken into consideration as well," the spokesperson added. N: NetflixO: OlympicsP: PinterestQ: QVCR: RedboxS: Southwest AirlinesT: Target.comU: United AirlinesV: Verizon WirelessW: WalmartX: Xbox LiveY: YouTubeZ: Zillow Autocomplete might speed searches, but does it influence what we're looking for? Do companies, moreover, benefit from the autocomplete alphabet?"It's dubious to me that anyone looks carefully at suggestions after typing a single letter, but it could be that they have typed a whole word or part of a word and then they see a better suggestion than what they originally had in mind," Mike Moran, chief strategist at social-media firm Converseon, told Crave. "So, they might have started out intending to search for 'digital camera' but ended up choosing 'digital camera reviews' or 'digital camera coupons' instead."To me, companies that want to appear in suggestions after a single letter are looking more for ego gratification than any serious moneymaking opportunity," says Moran, who co-authored the book "Search Engine Marketing, Inc." Sometimes marketers try to influence what Google suggests, he adds. "The reason that people try to manipulate these suggestions is less that they want people to come to their site than it is that they are embarrassed about what is popping up. If Enron was around today, you can bet that they would not be happy to see the suggestions that came up when searchers start typing their company name ('Enron fraud,' 'Enron scam,' 'Enron scandal,' etc). "It is typically this kind of reputation damage that drives companies to want to manipulate the results, and not merely to want 'Enron' to pop up when searchers type the letter 'e.'"Personally, I'll take "c" for cookie, and no more, any day.