Web searches give results tailored to you. Haver you ever wonder what other people see?
- Search Services Exist To Earn Money, And Show What They Want You To See.
- The Revenues Come From Providing ‘Tweaked’ and Biased Search Results and Information.
- Incognito or otherwise: Personalised Search Results (with bias) = Maximum revenue.
- Does the bias and being tracked matter?
- Be aware of the bias.
- They Don’t Sell Your Data: They use it themselves to manipulate you.
- Selling Your Data Is Not The Problem.
- Manipulation to keep you online: Too much time online?
- Have they changed who you trust for news and information.
- Search With Minimised Bias and Manipulation.
- Everyday Search Privacy Using ‘Duck Duck Go’ or Equivalent, and ‘Safe’ Browser.
- Everyday Browser Privacy using Brave or Equivalent.
- Search With Real Privacy and Bias Prevention Using Brave and Tor.
- Why The Privacy: Seeing what others see, protecting your profile.
- The Limitations Of Genuine Privacy.
- Country specific searches.
- Who Can You Trust, And How Far Can You Trust Them?
- How Does Do We End Up Paying, and How Do Search Engines and Browsers Providers Get So Rich?
- Somebody is paying a lot of money!
- How The Money Gets To Google etc: The Cost of Business in the 21st Century.
- Advertising, Influence and Corruption: A Continuum.
- Who Pays? Other people, or is it really us.
- Conclusion and What’s Next?
Search Services Exist To Earn Money, And Show What They Want You To See.
The Revenues Come From Providing ‘Tweaked’ and Biased Search Results and Information.
It is easy to forget that search engines and web browsers exist so the companies that provide them can make money. Every search is designed to earn them money. How they earn the money is discussed later, and this section is about understanding how their profit motive affects the results you see.
It is not as simple as searches only reveal information when paid, as they have to balance being too blatant, in order to keep you using their service.
The companies providing the most popular search engines and web browsers, are trillion dollar companies, with more wealth than any companies in any industries ever before.
These companies do not provide these search engines and web browsers out of the goodness of their hearts, but to generate the revenues that them the richest companies ever.
As explained below, the revenues of these companies depends on two goals:
- Maximising your use of their products providing the results you find engaging.
- Ensuring as much as possible their products become your source of trusted information.
- Influencing your decisions through the information you receive.
Some information is just there to keep you using their products as much as possible, but without the profits from influencing your decisions, that would just increase their expenses.
Each of these three steps requires tailoring search results to suit the person doing the searches.
Most of us use the products confident that our views will remain balanced, and while these companies manage to influence others into believing the world is flat, the influence of opinions only happens with other people. Even if we wont be influences by the results, we should be aware that the data we see has been is not neutral, and is filtered and adjusted due to the need to at least try to influence our opinions.
Incognito or otherwise: Personalised Search Results (with bias) = Maximum revenue.
Incognito or ‘private’ setting do not change the web services tracking you, the main ones always track.
Search results use profile data to return results specifically for you and that will engage you, and this means your search results could be very different from those seen by people in other countries, with other viewpoints, or even the information seen by your neighbour from their searches.
Have you ever wondered what search results people with different views from you see? Do you ever feel a desire to see what search results not specifically designed for you would look like?
Pick one issue you feel strongly about, search and you will usually find results that confirm your viewpoint. But what search results do people with the opposing viewpoint see?
One way to see results that are not specifically generated just for you, is to hide your identity from the search. If the search is unaware of who you are identity, then surely it can’t still be biased to confirming you existing views.
The trap is, although browsers have an ‘incognito’ or ‘private’ mode, is that, as stated by Google Chrome and Firefox etc your identity will still be visible to websites you visit, which includes search engines. Incognito mode means your computer won’t have a record of your browsing, but web sites, search engines, your ISP, and if you are at work your employer, will still have full information on your internet searches.
The benefit of ‘incognito’ is that someone else looking at your computer wont see your browsing history, but the web still sees you.
Even without cookies, every web request from your computer creates a trail of information “web request from computer X to web address Y”. Every point on the web the request passes through can keep track of what requests are sent from your computer, and where the requests are headed. Incognito makes no difference, and it has been know for some browsers to also report your data to the company who made the browser, even when that company is not even a party to your web request.
In summary, the ‘free’ products are all supplied by companies that earn revenue from your searches, and the richest ones earn the most money by being able to link searches and other requests to the person making those web requests. Despite the searches appearing free, it is a multi-trillion dollar business, the most valuable the world has ever seen, and they do not just ignore making money.
Your searches will be linked to you, and will return the results that make the most money for the companies running the searches and the browsers that their business model allows, incognito or not.
Does the Bias and Being Tracked Matter?
Being Aware Of the Bias.
The main problem with the bias is not realising the bias is there. It can seem amazing that not everyone shares your point of view given that every thing you find does seem to support your point of view. Until it dawns on you that others are seeing none of what you see, and a whole lot of evidence that supports a contrary point of view. Possibly the biggest danger from bias occurs when you don’t recognise the bias is there.
They Don’t Sell Your Data: They use it to manipulate you.
Selling Your Data Is Not The Problem.
Neither a big search engine company, or browser company is going to risk their billions or trillions doing any deal that is a serious breach of privacy in terms of giving your data to others. At least not routinely. The reality is the data they have on users of their products is their greatest asset, and the asset that has created their massive wealth. They do not want to let go of that data, they want to use it for themselves.
But do not think, “they already have my data anyway”, because the problem is not them having the data, it is them using that data to manipulate you whenever you are online.
These companies sell their ability to influence and manipulate. Like a government lobbyist, their reputation is build on results. The two measures of results are:
- How much do people use their product?
- How much evidences is there they can influence how people think.
There goal is maximise these metrics. To get people to use their products as much as possible, and for people to have their views directed by the information from using their products.
Manipulation to keep you online: Too much time online?
Are you spending too much time searching things or on web sites? This is the how your data is used against your best interest. Stealing your time, and stealing your attention.
Have they changed who you trust for news and information.
Where do you get your information? Have search results, links provided for you, or ‘recommended for you’ suggestions resulted in changes to where you get your news and opinions? The next way your data is used against you is it is used to shape your opinions.
Search With Minimised Bias and Manipulation.
Everyday Search Privacy Using ‘Duck Duck Go’ or Equivalent, and ‘Safe’ Browser.
As explained in the article in Entrepreneur above, the DuckDuckGo still exists to make money, just less of it. There are other, similar search engines. The simple principle is that the less money they make from searches, the less they need to compromise the search in order to earn that money.
There are still limitations to the bias, but for everyday purposes, just moving to DuckDuckGo will go a long way towards removing the bias from your searches. Of course the moment you click on a link as result of a search, you create a footprint on the web, and google and others will have ways to track you. The web has become just like a spider web.
Everyday Browser Privacy using Brave or Equivalent.
Of course no matter how you search, your web browser can still provide data to remote servers in order to track you. Firefox from Mozilla generates less revenue than the market leader Chrome, which means they have less to spend on influencing you to use their product, but it also means it is likely to be safer to use their product.
There are many web browsers available, and here is a list of browser alternatives to the big names: Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Edge, or Opera. That list ranks Brave as number 1, as does this list from ‘pcmag’.
In fact I have been using ‘Brave’ since the beginning of 2020. Brave is based on the same open source Chromium code as google chrome, but without the ‘special sauce’ code that google does not reveal which is responsible for tracking and earning the money for google, but Brave adds its own extras for privacy and add blocking.
If you compare the same site shown on your screen opened with Chrome and Brave, you will see that with Brave, you are seeing far less advertisements. All the adds will slow down your browsing, but overall it will do what it can to increase your time spent on the web. If you want to see targeted adds, easiest to stick with Chrome, although Brave can allow add if you option in, and shares the add revenue with you if you do.
The downside is there are some web sites that will insist on showing adds, or decline to show their content without you allowing adds.
Real Privacy Using Brave and Tor.
While simply using DuckDuckGo search with the Brave web browser is a sufficient improvement for most uses, some content will still be optimised for your viewing.
My method to ‘visit’ search engine or other websites with real anonymity, is to the use the ‘Brave’ web browser, together with the “New Private Window With Tor” option. If your personal safety depends on being anonymous, there are even stronger protections available such as using the Tor browser, but under normal circumstances, Brave with Tor protection is sufficient.
What about the trail of information that includes “every web request from computer X (your computer) to web address Y(the search engine or site)” that is seen by every link in the chain?
Using Tor, your web request goes to an intermediary ‘Tor’ computer, and so that is all the links in the chain can see that you are doing.
The intermediary, then sends a request to the search engine or other web site to get the information for you, ensuring that your computer never connects with search engine or target website. Your have a session only with the Tor computer, which is normally in another country, and search engines and web sites see only web requests from the Tor computer.
Why The Privacy: Seeing what others see, protecting your profile.
Greater privacy ensures the search pages or other web pages are similar to those seen by everyone else and not just what a company decides to show based on your profile.
Another reasons is that you may want searches that do not appear in your online profile. For example, after seeing some information on ‘Hitler’, you may want to check online without adding that word to you profile as one of your search terms.
For me, the main reasons are wondering “do other people get the same results when searching”, and when I want to research something I suspect will trigger advertising if I don’t avoid it.
Even searching with “DuckDuckGo”, I get different results searching with and without using Tor, so something about either my location or ID does affect the result.
The Limitations Of Genuine Privacy.
Some web sites are designed for obvious commercial or communication reasons, such as a major brand, and online shopping site, or a government web site. Others, such as a site that comments on produces reviews on an industry, exist in order to gain advertising revenue. Some of these sites simply will not give information without getting personal information on who is browsing, because it breaks their revenue model.
One way to learn about the motives of a website is to check if it will still talk to you anonymously. Google search does varies in its response, sometimes asking “are you a robot”, sometimes insisting on setting cookies first, and other times just deciding not play. In the end, google is not in the business of providing search results and getting nothing in return.
Country specific searches.
Want to know what people in a specific country would see? Google has search pages for different countries, but since it knows who you are, it will give you the same search results regardless if you used “google.com” or “google.co.uk”.
Using Tor will typically identify you as from a different country each time you establish a connection, but it is ‘pot luck’ which country so this will allow you to see responses in different countries, but not those of your choosing. Want to know what an Italian sees as ‘best type of pizza’ instead of what Americans see as a response? Unfortunately that requires using a VPN service and is more complex.
Who Can You Trust, And How Far Can You Trust Them?
There are various privacy services, but since you deal with one privacy service to connect with multiple web sites, there is less research required to check that one specific privacy service is trustworthy, and then use that service, than to check each time you feel cautious about an individual website collecting data on you.
How Do We Pay and How Do Search Engines and Browsers Providers Get So Rich.
Somebody is paying a lot of money!
Search engines such as Google, Microsoft Bing, and even DuckDuckGo, all have to earn revenue to exist. Yes, even DuckDuckGo has to make money, just less of it.
To search, you also need a web browser such as Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Firefox etc, and they all also need to earn revenue. Yes, even Mozilla, the makers of Firefox have to make money.
Google maker of the most popular search engine and web browser, is valued at close to one trillion dollars.
How The Money Gets To Google etc: The Cost of Business in the 21st Century.
If you want to be in business in the 20th century, you find you need to pay google. It has become a cost of doing business. Without help from Google, far few customers will find you, as google have become from the the majority of consumers who search with Google, the gatekeepers to being found when people “google” your product category.
Corruption, Influence and Advertising: A Continuum.
Corruption and Influencing Customers.
At one time in many countries, paying bribes was considered a cost of business. Another experience was gangs with “protection money” that if you didn’t pay, you would not remain in business. Hopefully all these practices, in most countries at least, are a thing of the past.
Still there is corruption. While there are steps to prevent corruption, in practice this is not possible, and all that we are left with is rules to limit corruption. The most blatant corruption was when to get business people would pay cash to those making the decision.
More obscure is when is when gifts, travel, or expensive meals are used to sway decisions. Now there are often limits on the value of meals or gifts, which is in some ways an acknowledgement steps to influence people, can be limited, but not completely eliminated. The line between being ‘nice’ and ‘friendly’ as opposed to seeking to influence becomes blurred. Reality is there is a level of ‘sucking up’ that is currently considered accepable, but it taken to levels that occurred previously, it can now be a crime.
The same perhaps can said of advertising. It should not be banned completely, but is there a point at which the budget allocation to influence buyers is going too far, given the effectiveness of the means to influence that are now available? It is well accepted that without a sufficiently large advertising budget to influence voters, it can be considered impossible to win elections.
Money spent on swaying opinions works. You can even sway people to make decisions that are against there best interests, which is why cigarette advertising is now banned. Just as an election can be won with the right budget, a consumers decisions between two products can be swayed by the right budget even if at odds with what is the best product.
The Pay TV Example: Acceptable Influencing, mostly.
At one time I felt that pay TV was a step backwards, as previously advertising had enabled free to air television, so consumers did not have to pay. Now I am not so sure. The marketing budgets that funded the TV stations, were all paid by consumers through increases prices of what they buy. If advertising was just about informing, then advertisements for Coca-Cola would describe the product rather than simply showing attractive people having fun. Would consumers have been better off if they paid for TV, but the products they purchases were less expensive?
With TV funded by advertising, the cost consumers are actually paying for the networks to exist becomes hidden from the consumers of the TV content, and the advertised products. Does hiding the costs from us result in significant waste in the system?
Apart from cigarettes, and some alcohol advertising, and perhaps some other forms, it does generally seem that system of funding television through advertising budgets that raised product prices may have been inefficient, but it was acceptable.
Does The Internet Take Customer Influencing Beyond An Acceptable Cost Level?
We were always paying indirectly for “free to air” TV, but despite our inability to control what we pay, it does not feel like the system was particularly broken, so perhaps indirectly paying for search engines and web browswers will also be fine. But there are differences.
- Advertising on TV was not considered a business essential, especially for small business.
- TV advertising was true promotion, and the TV networks never controlled the way people found a business.
- There were several rival networks, and no monopoly.
- Everybody saw the same advertisements, and no content was tailored to the individual.
- Networks did not have data on individuals that could be used to effectively run individualised campaigns to shift the thinking of consumers.
- The TV networks never because ‘gatekeepers’, and although that did partially exist in the form of telephone directories, these gatekeepers were never powerful enough to amass huge wealth.
Now we have advertising and influencing at an entire new level. Perhaps in the same way gifts below a certain cost level can be seen as ok, but over a certain cost become corruption, the internet advertising/influencing industry has crossed a line from tolerable to unacceptable?
Is the industry of influencing so valuable to society, that it justifies the profit margins from the process of influencing consumers to be so large that companies managing the influencing can have be as economically significant as the economy of Great Britain? That is where things are currently headed.
The total spend by consumers on the percentage of what they purchase that has to be diverted to marketing has become staggering, and continues to increase. It may be acceptable that 10% of cost of things we buy must be paid by the company behind the product to internet companies for influencing our purchase decisions, but is it ok if this reaches 20%? 50%?
Who Pays? Other people, or us.
Microsoft etcYou don’t pay directly, but through the products you buy, as the companies supplying the products all pay the web search and web browsing companies for their role in influencing your decisions.
If a company doesn’t include within the pricing an amount to pay to influence the decisions of buyers, even though their products would cost less, no one will be influenced to buy them, or perhaps, to even know the products exist.
So although we pay indirectly, we all pay to fund the web search providers and for the web browser providers.
Conclusion and What Next?
Conclusion still being considered. The consumers lose control over the cost of “free” products where they pay indirectly needs more consideration.
To still be explored is that consumers were provided product by TV networks as they created the content. The internet search companies are just the gatekeepers on the delivering the content, but are able to charge so much just because consumers don’t see that they are paying. DuckDuckGo and others prove how inexpensively the same service can be provided.
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