Thursday, September 21, 2006

User Expectations for Free Services

"Google, you have no right to track my searches!"

How many people have been saying that, especially since the whole thing with AOL "leaking" those users' search records? "Leak" nothing, they released them carefully as an opportunity for research, and we did nothing but attack them. They could have sold them, names and personal billing information included, without ever telling us a thing. What they did was perfectly within their bounds, just read your agreement with them.

Google seems to almost get more cruft about the whole thing than AOL. Maybe people just can't get surprised when they think they see something a company they never liked doing something they disagree with. People want to love Google, so they will get defensive about them almost to the point of taking it personally. How do you draw a line to the rights of users, when they do not even pay for the services being considered? Can we have any rights without being customers? If I asked you a question, do I have some right to demand that you take that question to the grave?

We are throwing an ever increasing amount of information we consider our own into free services across thousands of miles over unsecured channels, and we expect some kind of privacy and set of rights about how that information is dealt with. We have more than search history to deal with, because we're starting to replace desktop office apps with websites to entrust with our unpublished novels and family finance records. We obviously have a large trust in the services, but why do you expect this? Do we even have a right to expect that trust, or are we just delusional?

I do not care if Google tracks every site I browse to, analyzes it, locates patterns, adjusts my searches accordingly, shows me adds based on my browsing habits, or anything else they might be doing with the information. They are an ad driven company. They make money on advertisement clicks and I won't click on something I don't want to buy, so they have to do everything with getting advertisements in my face that I actually want to click, and that means it must be something I'm actually interested in (why else would I click?), so I'm getting as much out of it as they are. Google makes a quarter, and I finally found that great flatscreen TV deal that saves me a grand. Who is the winner here, and all I had to do was drop my pretension notions and enjoy a free service for its hidden cost: a little anonymous (outside Google) exposure and a few pixels of screen on the result pages. Wow, I am so winning in this relationship.

Amazon has been tracking your use of their site for years and doing amazing things with the way they cater to individual users, and there has been little fuss about it. No one complains, because they are too busy watching the movies Amazon suggested they buy. We have rejected the advertising the drives the economy for decades, but when it starts to actually be things we want to buy, do we even see an advertisement, or just a cool new album by your favorite artist? Advertising is meant to convince you to buy some product, and the best way to convince you is to find you already wanting to buy what they have to sell. You can't convince someone who doesn't want or need a product very well, you can just annoy them. That means getting rid of useless advertising is great for the consumer, and I welcome my personally tailored advertising.

Now, if only I could figure out why these amazing, personally specific advertisements were trying to sell outdoor equipment on my programming blog.

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I write here about programming, how to program better, things I think are neat and are related to programming. I might write other things at my personal website.

I am happily employed by the excellent Caktus Group, located in beautiful and friendly Carrboro, NC, where I work with Python, Django, and Javascript.

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