It seems to be a free service, but then, you don’t get owt fer nowt

It’s one of the basic life lessons, expressed through various catchy phrases; “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” and so on and it seems very apt for the age of “big data”.

By their nature, many medically-related searches are bound to be personal and quite possibly sensitive in content, so the searcher would hope that the sites visited are not tracking this type of search and then leaking it to third parties. It’s therefore a little unnerving to read that health-related searches are probably being tracked.

Science Daily, along with other sources, has reported on research carried out by the University of Southern California, between December 2012 and January 2013. The research used a sample of 20 popular health-related websites, and found that “all 20 sites had at least one third-party element, with the average being six or seven. Thirteen of the 20 websites had one or more tracking element”. However, sites linked to medical professionals and closely tied to professional groups did not appear to track.

This serves yet again to make us think twice when we carry out such searches and it also serves as a reminder that this interference is very much down to the business model of the “free” internet. Google does it and so do many, many other “free” sites. These are commercial sites and yet we are being offered a free service by them, so perhaps it’s a bit optimistic (or even ungrateful) on our part to expect no after-effects? After all, these “free” sites have to make money somehow and the only model that’s really been proven to work still remains that of advertising.

A few years ago, we only suffered pop-up ads, but I think part of the problem now is that things have moved on and become more sophisticated. Pop-up ads are annoying and sites still do pop-up adverts, but they can also do much more these days. They track, they profile, they provide data to third parties, they trace links and access what they can from social media sites. In return, they allow the general populace to use their sites without monetary charge. Data is the currency we are handing over instead.

I’ve witnessed the advances for myself in the workplace marketing department. Companies can now monitor who visits their website, what pages they visit, how long they stay and more. The aim is ostensibly the same: all the better to target potential customers.

However, it feels more invasive and it is. Plus we’re never quite sure that that is the sole aim. In the case of health info. it’s even more unsettling due to the potentially sensitive subject matter. Instinctively (and I believe it is a deep-rooted instinctive reaction), I don’t like the thought of being monitored all the time and neither do thousands of others – there are any number of articles showing concern around big data and privacy loss.

So, we have a new phrase “there’s no such thing as a free web search”. Perhaps it’s time to investigate anti-tracking software? There are various free offerings, easily found (just plug “anti tracking software” into a search engine, for instance).

But it raises a question. I can’t help wondering…how are they making money? Might have to check that one out.

This entry was posted in Big data, Featured sites, Future views, Information literacy, Psychology of search, Search engines, Social networking, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to It seems to be a free service, but then, you don’t get owt fer nowt

  1. Sarah says:

    As a rider to this (and also my previous post), SearchEngineWatch has an interesting article from the alternative perspective of the poor company marketing department, struggling to keep up with optimized rankings, adverts etc. amidst all these technology advances:

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