As well as searching websites, Google Search can also offer instant answers to common questions

I did try searching Google to see if they publish a comprehensive directory of “Instant Answers”, but (ironically) I couldn’t find anything from them. However, here are some examples that I’ve gleaned from other sources:

Time Zones

eg Type “time paris” (without the quotes) and the following result will be displayed (depending, of course, on what time you key it in!)

Google Instant Time

Word Definitions

eg “define cantankerous” (without the quotes)

Google Instant Definition

Being a stroppy Brit, I much prefer to use a proper authority on the subject – the Oxford English Dictionary .

Instant Calculations

eg “calculate 34 * 71.6″ (without the quotes)

Google Instant Calculator

Note that you don’t need to precede this enquiry with the word “calculate”. A search term of “34 * 71.6″ (without the quotes) would have worked. By the way, if you do include the quote marks then Google will not do a calculation at all. Surrounding any search term in Google with quote marks is supposed to tell Google to search for the exact term between the quotes (but it sometimes still goes its own sweet way and tries to interpret the search request rather than treat it literally).

Note that the “operators” (eg add, subtract) are the same as for any calculation carried out on a computer – eg + (for plus), – (for minus), / (for divide), * (for multiply), ^ (to the power of). When you enter a calculation into the search box, Google not only returns the answer, but also displays a calculator and a “more info” link directly beneath it.

Unit conversion

eg “convert 23 c to f” (without the quotes)

Google Instant Converter

Flight times

eg “Air France 4508″ (without the quotes)

Google Flight Times

There are other ways of getting more from Google Search. Try these previous blog posts:

Some Easy Refinements in Google Search
Google Search
Google Result Types

We are being bombarded with offers of “free cloud storage”

Cloud ClipartThe phrase “in the cloud” just means that computers remote from our own local network are involved. I covered this in a blog three years ago called Cloud Computing, but then I was thinking more of the provision of software in the cloud rather than just storage space for our data.

Today, though, I’m just looking at the provision of storage space. You can avail yourself of free cloud services just to use the storage space – whether or not the service actually includes software. Some of the most popular are:

Google Drive – 15gb space, 10gb max file size
OneDrive (was Skydrive) – 7gb space, 1tb max file size (you’d need to upgrade to a paying service for a 1tb file)
Amazon – 5gb space, 2gb max file size
Dropbox – 2gb initial free space, max file size is the same as available space
Box – 10gb free space, 250mb max file size

Filing cabinet in the cloudsThe free space listed above is what they are advertising today (28/05/2014). There are often special offers. For instance, I was lucky enough to latch onto “Box” at a time when they were offering a whopping 50gb free space. And with the Dropbox service, you can earn extra free space – eg by introducing other users. In fact, if you were to open a free Dropbox account via the link above, then I would receive an extra 500mb space for introducing you and you would earn an extra 500mb space for joining via a referrer (me).

Why would you use cloud storage?

  • It provides you with a “remote backup”. In other words, if the worst happened and all your computers, files, backup drives, usb drives, DVDs, and everything else were all lost in one single event (such as fire, theft, or flood) then the remote copy in the Cloud would not be affected.
  • It can provide a way of synchronising data between lots of devices (eg a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, and a desktop). True synchronisation is when the data is kept on different devices and they are all kept “in step” (in this case, via a Cloud service). An alternative to synchronisation is to use the Cloud storage as the ONLY copy of the data. In that case, no synchronisation is necessary, but you do have to have an active internet connection to access the data. Most cloud storage services offer the ability to synchronise to your local device.

Why wouldn’t you use cloud storage?

  • If you were very concerned about the privacy of the data you were storing in the cloud. Although the data is encrypted, it has come to light that some of the storage companies could decrypt the data if they had to. All these storage companies will divulge your data in response to legal instruction to do so – eg in response to government agencies demanding legitimate access to the data. How much the most powerful governments can also glean by other methods is, of course, now open to conjecture. You could also encrypt your data yourself before sending it to the cloud so that it has been double-encrypted by the time it is stored in the cloud. This could get messy, though, if you wanted to access the data from devices running different operating systems (eg a mixture of Windows, Mac, and Android).
  • If you have lots of data to store, it may not fit in the allocated space. Also, some services have limitations on the size of individual files. That great Box account of mine has the slight drawback that it will not store files bigger than 250mb.
  • If you have a feeble internet connection then it may be too tedious to upload files to the Cloud.

So why are all these companies competing to offer us a free service?

Clouds on laptop screenNo doubt they are trying to build large customer bases that they will be able to capitalise on in the future. Even now there are usually “professional” versions of the free storage plans that charge a monthly subscription for an enhanced service.

This is exactly where the computer companies want us to go. The likes of Microsoft have realised that it’s difficult to keep selling “new improved, enhanced” versions of their software every 2-4 years. From a marketing point of view it’s much better to get people to sign a direct debit for a small monthly amount that they will continue to pay month after month, year after year. This is the basis for the Office 365 version of Microsoft Office. I’m not quite sure when they sneaked it past us, but if you open Word 2010 on a Windows 8 computer and go to open a file, then the initial (the default) location that it will look for the document is now “OneDrive” (the renamed Skydrive – Microsoft’s Cloud storage service). Presumably this only happens if you actually have a OneDrive account. Nevertheless, I would prefer to have chosen to change the default to a cloud location myself rather than be led by the nose by Microsoft. Maybe this can be changed in Word or Window “Options” but I couldn’t find it.

In conclusion, as far as I am concerned it’s worth using Cloud storage for purposes of synchronisation (for this I use Dropbox) and for storing “remote backups” that I wouldn’t want to lose altogether. I still prefer to think of my own laptop as being the centre of my computing world and I suspect that a lot of other people do likewise. I’m prepared to bet, though, that we’ll allow ourselves to be herded in the direction that the big computer companies want us to go and I think that this is already starting to happen. I think that cloud storage is here to stay and will probably become the norm.

Have you been missing some helpful refinements to “Google Search” that are right in front of your eyes?

Working one-to-one with my computer support clients, I often have the opportunity of watching how they really work with their computers. It’s all very well talking to people, giving tips on how to work more efficiently, but there’s no substitute for seeing how people actually do things. One of the things I’ve noticed in this way is that a surprisingly large number of people never use the refinements to Google Search that are right in front of them. When I point them out, a typical reaction is “Oh, I’ve never noticed that before”.

Several times I’ve thought about writing a blog post on this subject, but an everyday computing phenomenon has held me back – things change very often and without warning. I promise you that the Google Search options are still present at 09:15 on Saturday 19/10/2013. If they’ve disappeared by the time this blog is published at 12:30 today, well, c’est la vie in the computing monde.

So, what are these options?

The first thing to note is that they don’t appear until AFTER you’ve keyed in your search term at www.google.co.uk and told Google to do an initial search (either by clicking on the search button – the magnifying glass in the blue box – or by pressing the Enter key).

Google Search - Options

Figure 1 – Google Search Options


Then you get the list as shown in Figure 1 directly below the original search term. Let’s go through them:

Web

This is the normal, default, option. It means that Google has searched for results to your search across all types of content and across all websites. You can tell that you’ve just done such a normal web search as the word “Web” is in red and is underscored.

Images

Clicking on this option will change the results of the search to show images that relate to the search term you have already entered. Clicking on any image in the results will display a larger version of the image and more information about its source. Clicking on this larger image takes you directly to the source.

Maps

This will show any maps that Google Search thinks are relevant to your search.

Shopping

Google Search - Shopping

Figure 2 – Google Search – Shopping

This option is possibly being a bit ambitious. To begin with, it takes a stab at where it thinks you are. Despite being in Clapham, Google currently thinks I’m in Cambridge for some reason. To put it mildly, this is going to compromise the suggestions it comes up with for matching the search term with local shopping opportunities. If you’re really stuck for something to do this weekend, you could have a look at this Google page relating to your location.

However, if you do find that the shopping option shows promise in the results it shows, then you can refine your search by taking choices listed down the left side of the screen (category, price, store etc – see Figure 2). Note that the options vary depending upon what type of item Google thinks you are shopping for.

No doubt this is a “work in progress” and will get better as time goes by. Personally, I confess that if I’m using the internet to source something I want to buy then I’m slipping into the habit of just going straight to Amazon. As I was discussing with a client just yesterday, if the High Streets disappear because of Amazon then it will be largely due to the fact that Amazon do a great job and make shopping so much easier.

More

Clicking on this button allows you to refine your search in other ways (see Figure 3).

Google Search - More

Figure 3 – Google Search – More

Search Tools

This offers various refinements to your search results:

  • Any Country or just UK.
  • Any Time or a comprehensive set of selections (useful if you are searching the net for information relating to a specfic occurrence of something that happened within a definable time frame).
  • Reading Level – I’m sure that no-one reading this blog will have much need to filter their Google results by “reading level”! However, Google have now plonked another option here – “Verbatim”. This means that it will return search results EXACTLY matching your search term (instead of applying all its fancy algorithms to try and dish up results that it thinks you might have wanted based on your search term). I can’t see the point of this as they already have a perfectly good way of specifying a “verbatim” search, and that is to enclose your search term in double-quotes.

There you go, then. A quick trawl through some of the options that stare you right in the face when you do a Google search. If nothing else, you can enjoy a frisson of schadenfreude when Google tells you you are in Cambridge instead of London!

NFC is yet another acronym in the telecoms field

Exchanging data via NFC

Exchanging data via NFC

In this context, it stands for “Near Field Communication”. It is a set of standards (“agreed rules”, if you like) that allows devices such as smartphones to communicate with each at very close distances, or even if touching each other. The most obvious uses for this technology at this time are for the one-way or two-way exchange of data between devices (eg a contact’s name and address) and for the completion of transactions – in particular, financial ones.

NFC - Swiping a mobile phone

Swiping a mobile phone to make a payment

As well as communication between two powered devices, NFC also allows for communication between one powered device and an unpowered NFC chip. When communicating with an NFC chip (also known as a “tag”), the communication is one-way – ie data is read by the device from the tag.

We are starting to see NFC contactless payment systems appearing in shops that can communicate with smartphones, whereas these systems previously needed you to offer your credit/debit card to the reader to complete a transaction. As with debit/credit cards, you needn’t be worried, though, that your smartphone is going to erroneously pay for the latte of the person in front of you in the queue as NFC only works over very short distances – in practice the limit is about 4cm.

GoogleWalletLogoNow, if your smartphone can communicate with another NFC device it means that all of your card details (including loyalty cards and so forth) can be stored in one place on your phone. This is what Google Wallet promises to do, but at the moment it is limited to users in the USA.

Thinks: “what happens if I lose my smartphone?” Yes, that could be a big problem. Anyone who has access to the functions of your phone potentially has access to any card whose details are stored on it. You can, of course, ensure that entry to your phone is protected by a pin code and that only a limited number of attempts to enter that code are permitted. There is also a potential security problem of people “eavesdropping” on the transaction – ie electronically listening to the data being transmitted.

NFC Logo

One of several logos that can be found representing NFC

To some extent, I may be jumping the gun a bit by blogging about this subject as the phone carriers and software makers and financial people have not yet come to complete agreement about how NFC is going to be implemented. As mentioned above, Google Wallet currently only works in the USA. Over here, there are some schemes already up and running – such as Orange UK’s “Quick Tap Wallet”, but this seems to be restricted to Samsung phones. I managed to install the app onto my Sony smartphone but it says I need a “Quick Tap SIM card” and that I need to speak to them on 150. Until recently I thought that speaking with T-Mobile/Orange was becoming more bearable, but I lost half of my Saturday a few weeks ago when my text messaging stopped working and it took that long to sort it out. So, I don’t have the stamina to go through all that again just yet.

Sony Xperia NFC Tags

Is this the acme of nerdiness?

In the meantime, I’ve had a look at what can be done with NFC and reading tags. Sony sell “tags” that can be programmed so that when you touch the tag onto your phone a series of instructions are carried out on the phone (such as turning GPS on or off, muting the volume etc). The idea is that you set different tags to re-program your phone for different circumstances (driving, bedroom, office, etc). Because I can tell myself I need to know about these things, I can allow myself to be incredibly nerdy by buying a set of four of these Sony Xperia tags – (£6.59 inc p&p).

So, NFC is with us but it’s not exactly a “mature” technology yet. The reason I mention it today is that I keep seeing mobile phone specifications boasting about being “NFC enabled”. You won’t, by the way, see that on an iPhone specification just yet. It’s rumoured that the next generation of iPhones will be NFC enabled, but the iPhone 5 isn’t.

Does the average reader of this blog need an NFC phone and tags hanging around the place? Maybe, maybe not, but the next time you are in a mobile phone store and the teenage “sales associate” is trying to blind you with the technology, maybe you’ll remember what “NFC-enabled” is all about and whether it might be of any interest to you.

Incidentally, the introduction of NFC technology over the last year or so hasn’t been without problems. I’m sure I’m not alone in having the problem of my Oystercard not being read correctly on buses and tubes. The problem is caused by the machine getting confused with my smart debit card. The problem is solved by having the two cards in different sides of your wallet and only offering the relevant side for payment.

How do you like the new Gmail inboxes, then?

Google have been rolling out the new Gmail inboxes, whereby your incoming email is pre-sorted into one of five tabs. These tabs, together with Gmail’s definitions of what goes into them by default are:

  • Primary – “person-to-person conversations and messages that don’t appear in other tabs”
  • Social – “messages from social networks, media-sharing sites, online dating services and other social websites”
  • Promotions – “deals, offers, and other marketing emails”
  • Updates – “personal, auto-generated updates including confirmations, receipts, bills and statements”
  • Forums – “messages from online groups, discussion boards and mailing lists”

I must admit that the knee-jerk reaction of this grumpy old man was to start chuntering at my screen “… and who do you think you are, intercepting my email and sorting it onto piles. I never asked you to do this“. But I’m starting to get tired of this reaction. Maybe they’re wearing me down (see also this blog a couple of weeks ago). And, anyway, they already “read” my email in order to try and match advertising with what they think interests me.

Having said that, I can easily imagine quite a handful or so of my IT support clients not being happy with this change, so let’s look at how you can over-ride it to go back to the single inbox.

Gmail Inbox Tab Selection

Figure 1 – Selection of Inbox Tabs

If you look at the right-hand side of the list of inbox tabs there is a plus sign. If you click on this a window will pop up as in Figure 1. The way to return to a single, undifferentiated, inbox is to click on the ticks against the four “subsidiary” inbox tabs so that they all become “unticked” (you can’t untick the “primary” tab) and then click on the “save” button. After a few seconds the inbox will return to the old style.

The way to turn the new inbox tabs back on is to click on the “Settings” gearwheel at the top right and then click on the “Configure Inbox” option. This will then re-present the screen that allows you to select which inbox tabs to show.

Gmail Inbox Tabs - moving messages

Figure 2 – Gmail Inbox Tabs – moving messages

You can move a message to a different tab and then instruct Gmail to put future messages from that sender into the same inbox tab (see Figure 2). I’ve noticed, though, that it doesn’t move other previous messages from that sender to the newly-chosen tab.

This blog was written with Gmail’s normal webmail interface in mind. The new inbox tabs are also being rolled out for Gmail apps in Android and iPhone. You won’t see them, however, if you have configured an email client (such as Windows Live Mail or Outlook) to deal with your Gmail.


Google Search is now secure

Google's Secure Search

Figure 3 – Google’s Secure Search

A few times in the last week or two I have noticed browsers not correctly showing Google Search when that is the defined “Home” page and the “Home” button is clicked. Instead, an error of the type “document not found” is encountered. I think the reason is that Google have changed their “Search” to a secure connection so that data between the browser and Google is now encrypted. This means that the web page has changed from http://www.google.co.uk to https://www.google.co.uk (ie the “http” part has changed to “https”). If you are encountering this problem, then just change your home page in your browser settings accordingly.

And I’d just like to take this opportunity to remind you that the “s” after “http” should ALWAYS be present on any web page in which you are exchanging confidential information – especially financial information.

Firefox logo with tubular bells and whistlesOne of the great strengths of the Firefox web browser is the ability to bolt on goodies – bells and whistles, if you like – that add useful features to the browser. These “bolt-ons” are usually free but the authors may invite you to make a small donation of a couple of pounds.

There are lots of these “add-ons”. They go under the name of “add-ons”, “plug-ins”, “extensions”. I can’t find any definition of these terms that differentiates between them so I’m not sure if there’s some subtle difference between them or not. Anyway, they’re all “bolt-on goodies” as far as I am concerned and Firefox is the best of all the major browsers in this respect.

The best place to go hunting for these add-ons is to open Firefox, click on the “Firefox” button (see figure 1), click on “Add-ons”, then click on “Get Add-ons” and then click on “browse all add-ons” (bottom righthand corner of screen). Figure 1 illustrates Firefox version 6.

Firefox Add-On Button

Figure 1 - Firefox Add-On Button

To give you an idea of what’s available, here are half a dozen of the ones that I find the most useful:-

Adblock Plus 1.3.9

This removes most online advertising and blocks known malware domains. I appreciate that I’m open to charges of hypocricy and biting the hand that feeds me as I, myself, advertise my computer support and training services online using Google AdWords. Maybe I wouldn’t encourage blocking ads if it wasn’t for the fact that some of them are very distracting and irritating – especially the animated ones. AdBlock Plus is a godsend for grumpy old men like me.

BetterPrivacy 1.66

Normal methods of removing tracking cookies do not include the removal of “super cookies” created by Flash objects. This add-on gives the option of manually managing them or automatically deleting them, thereby reducing the chances of third parties discovering where you have been on the internet.

Flagfox 4.1.5

This add-on shows an icon of a flag in the website address bar. This flag is of the country in which the website server resides. I tend to glance at this to help me decide whether a website is genuine and/or trustworthy. This helps my decision-making if I’m considering an online purchase from an unknown company.

My Homepage 1.2

It was stumbling on this “extension” this morning that caused me to write this blog offering computer advice on this subject. I have always been irritated by opening a new browser tab and not having it open my Home Page. Why open a new tab with a blank page? What good is that to anyone? Anyway, this little extension solves it – magic!

Print Edit 5.4

I was thinking of writing a blog post on the problems of printing from web pages, although I have mentioned the subject before – eg Website Frustrations. This add-on greatly helps in overcoming those problems as you can choose which “elements” or “chunks” of a web page will be sent to your printer. Isn’t it amazing how irritated we all get when the printer spews out four pages and all we wanted was a couple of paragraphs?

TrackMeNot 0.6.728

OK, we’ve had the “grumpy old man” a couple of times already today, so here’s more of the paranoid: I really don’t want anyone taking any kind of note of what I do on my computer unless it is information that I have specifically and knowingly provided. What TrackMeNot does is to issue random search requests to the main search engines – AOL, Yahoo, Google, and Bing – so that genuine searches are “hidden” amongst all this chaff. This reduces the chances of the search companies being able to compile meaningful profiles based on user search patterns. On the authors’ website they say “Placing users in full control is an essential feature of TMN, whose purpose is to protect against the unilateral policies set by search companies in their handling of our personal information“.

They go on to say “We are disturbed by the idea that search inquiries are systematically monitored and stored by corporations like AOL, Yahoo!, Google, etc. and may even be available to third parties. Because the Web has grown into such a crucial repository of information and our search behaviors profoundly reflect who we are, what we care about, and how we live our lives, there is reason to feel they should be off-limits to arbitrary surveillance“. Quite.

Large eye through a magnifying glassWe may be fighting a losing battle with online privacy. As mentioned in last week’s blog on Internet Privacy, companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon hoover up every crumb of information they can glean about us and use it to target us with ads and content that they think will appeal to us. As far as I know there’s isn’t any perfect strategy for maintaining online privacy, but there are lots of small things we can do that will certainly help.

I’m not concerned here with security on the internet as it relates to the safety of children, or trying to hide our identity so that we may be completely untraceable. I’m just trying to keep down the amount of un-necessary information we give to the likes of Google. These tips are equally valid in a home computer or business computer environment.

So, here are some tips. They’re not listed in any particular order. Some are easier to put into practice than others:

  • Create another email account that you never intend to use for “real” email. Don’t include your own real name in the account name and don’t give real data when completing the compulsory items of information in the account profile. Quote this email address on any websites that demand you supply one and where you don’t expect a normal, ongoing, email exchange (since you don’t want to have to keep checking this account for incoming emails). Having an “anonymous” account like this also helps in keeping spam out of your main email account.
  • If a website demands that you give personal information that is not connected with a financial transaction nor has other legal implications, then LIE. I will NOT give my real address or date of birth online when there is no legitimate NEED for it (and there are few legitimate needs except the protection of the other party in financial transactions). If I am entering a compulsory date of birth on a website where this is “relevant” (but not essential for financial reasons) then I enter a date that is close to my own (so that it makes no difference for the legitimate purposes of the website) but from which I can not be traced.
  • When filling in online forms, exercise judgement in completing any item that is not marked as compulsory (usually indicated by an asterisk or written in red). If they don’t require you to give a date of birth then why would you? If an item is compulsory but impertinent then LIE.
  • Don’t click on any “like” buttons in Facebook or anything similar (eg in Google).
  • Don’t take part in online quizzes or polls.
  • Preferably, don’t use Facebook at all. If you are a Facebook user and have any concerns at all about the privacy of your data, read this article about Facebook’s attitude to privacy.
  • Magnifying glass over computer keyboard

  • If you’re still keen to use Facebook, go through all the settings and mark everything private except what you explicitly wish to share.
  • If you use LinkedIn, do not click on ads without first changing your privacy settings to exclude monitoring your activity re ads.
  • Do not use Gmail or any of its branded versions (I think Virgin’s webmail is one of those). Google reads your emails and bombards you with “appropriate” Google ads (sponsored links). See last week’s blog on Internet Privacy.
  • If you must use Gmail, at least ensure that you sign out when you are not actually using the email as Google records everything you do in your browser if you are logged in as a Gmail user. They then use this info to target you with Google ads. I also sign out of other sites, such as Microsoft Live, as soon as I’ve finished with them.
  • Disable or remove browser add-ons that place “toolbars” and/or “search boxes” at the top of your browser. These often have tracking software in them. Incidentally, your browser performance will also be improved by doing this and your browser screen will be less cluttered.
  • Be very careful about “linking” any social networking site to any other (by giving any of them permission to access others). You might add data to one program, believing it to be private, forgetting that you have linked it to another program that sucks in what you thought was private data and spits it out somewhere more public.
  • Set your browser so that all cookies are deleted as soon as you close the browser (but this has implications – read on).
  • Set your browser to delete your browsing history as soon as you close your browser.
  • Set your browser to disallow third party cookies.
  • Turn off Amazon browsing history.
  • If you use Firefox or Chrome as your browser then you can install AdBlock Plus. This will stop most ads from appearing while you are browsing.
  • If you use Firefox, another excellent add-on is Better Privacy. This deletes the “flash cookies” that are placed on your hard drive by Flash Player. Flash cookies (also known as LSOs – Locally Stored Objects) are not removed or blocked along with other cookies.
  • Do not be misled into thinking that “private browsing” will give you any protection. It does suppress evidence on your own computer but it does not prevent sites you visit from recording your activity. Nevertheless, it may help to turn it on.
  • More technical ways of throwing websites off your scent include using proxy servers and using a dynamic IP address.
  • If you want to make an online purchase from a website that you don’t completely trust, you can use a prepaid Mastercard. This will limit your financial exposure to the value on the card and will also keep all your personal information from the website.

As if all this wasn’t already a nightmare worthy of a Kafka novel, some of these measures nullify others. You can turn off Amazon’s “browsing history” and, similarly, stop ask.com from retaining your history but the instructions to turn these off are held in cookies so if you delete cookies (as recommended above) you’re back to square one with these two sites. Doh!

Some of the tips above are easy to carry out and others less so. I haven’t attempted to give specific instructions (eg for different versions of different browsers) as it would just take too long.

If you’d like some help in tightening up your online privacy, contact me to arrange either a computer support visit or some online remote support.

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

Are you concerned about the privacy of your internet activities?

Magnifying glass over computer keyboardA lot of people just shrug their shoulders at this question. They just don’t care what information is being collected about them or their online habits and activities.

Others – including me – think that the “default position” ought to be that only the minimum information should be collected to permit an online function to happen and that no data should be kept unless it is required to protect one or both parties in a contract situation (such as a purchaser giving a full invoicing address).

Someone recently told me that she thought it was “freaky” that Google ads are appearing in her email for products she had recently been looking at on seemingly unrelated websites. Along similar lines, I was recently training a silver surfer client in the use of Gmail and noticed a lot of ads for militaria. I asked him if he had recently had any contact with the army and he said that he had been involved in a veterans’ dinner.

Now, to some people this spying on our activity and fine-tuning on-line ads to capitalise on what they have learned about us is nothing more than a logical extension of how traditional advertising has always worked. After all, if you were selling a boat and wanted to advertise it, you would put the ad in a boating magazine because you’d know that the reader was interested in boats. Is there any difference between that and Google targetting ads about militaria to a Gmail user who has been discussing an army veterans’ dinner in his email correspondence?

If I ask people under 30 this kind of question, their eyes glaze over and a look comes over them that suggests that they’ve just realised they’re talking to a nutter and now they’re wondering if I’m dangerous as well. Ask the same thing to someone who’s old enough to remember the days before CCTV cameras (silver surfers in particular) and I’ll usually get a different response.

For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that it is an outrageous invasion of privacy for Google to read people’s email and use the knowledge gained to target ads to that person. OK, I do realise that it’s a machine that’s doing the reading and not humans. That doesn’t change the principle. Apart from anything else, it’s widely thought that Google never ever throw data away, so anything they’ve recorded about you could, in principle, be checked over by humans or machines at any time in the future. I also acknowledge that Gmail is “free” to use and that people are quite capable of choosing different methods of handling their email. However, that should only give them the right to read a Gmail user’s outgoing – and not incoming – email. If I send an email to someone who uses Gmail what right do Google have to read that email? I haven’t given them permission to do so: I don’t use Gmail.

I’ve been reading a book called “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser. Click here for an interview with The Independent.

"The Filter Bubble" book coverPariser discusses the fact that Google and other huge websites such as Amazon, Facebook et al, not only bombard you with ads that they have tailored to what they know about you, but that they are also tailoring content to show you what they think you will like. So, if you perform a Google search and I perform the same search we may be presented with different results depending on what Google knows about each of us. And I’m talking about the Google organic results, here, not the Google advertising presented in sponsored links. Facebook are likewise filtering which of your friends’ updates are displayed to you depending on how much interest you have shown in that friend in the past. Pariser argues that these online organisations are creating a “filtered” view of the universe such that what you see on the internet is biased in favour of what you already know and like (ie you are in a “filter bubble”). Pariser maintains that, at the very least, this is presenting a distorted view of the world and most people are just not aware that such filtering is going on. I’m not sure about some of the implications that Pariser considers because I suspect that he over-estimates the importance of the internet in influencing our worldview. Nevertheless, I found this book informative, thought-provoking and worth reading (and thanks to Elaine for telling me about it).

If you belong to the part of the population that doesn’t care about privacy and doesn’t care where all this data gathering and filtering may be taking us then you won’t read my blog next week as I’m going to list some of the steps you can take to try to protect your privacy. l feel like a cross between the boy with his finger in the dyke and King Canute, but I do feel happier taking at least a few steps in the right direction and maybe you will, too, if you find things like targeted advertising “freaky” and disturbing.

I am aware that I am open to charges of hypocrisy. I advertise my computer services using Google AdWords and www.google.co.uk is still my home page. I do also buy stuff on Amazon (but not books). That doesn’t mean, though, that I have to approve of their definitions of acceptable boundaries when it comes to information gathering, retention, and use. My stance is that taking small steps to protect my privacy is better than taking none at all.

What are you looking at when you have performed a search in Google?

There are typically two sections to the results. The first section is listed towards the lefthand side of the screen and is known as “organic results”. The second section is listed down the righthand side of the screen and is called “ads” (it used to be called “sponsored links”).

Google Search Results highlighting organic results and ads

Google Search Results - figure 1

This clear distinction can be blurred a bit by Google sometimes showing several “ads” at the top of the “organic” listings (as in figure 2). You can tell when the first “organic” listings are, in fact, Google AdWords ads by the off-white background colour to these ads. It has to be said, though, that it’s very easy indeed to forget – or not notice – that the first two or three so-called organic entries may, in fact, be part of Google advertising.

Google Search Results highlighting ads at top

Google Search Results - figure 2

So what’s the difference?

On the face of it, Google are showing you the organic listings that they think are the most relevant to the search term that you entered. No money changes hands for Google to list a website in the organic listing. The implication is that the organic listings are “impartial”, “fair”, “accurate”.

The “ads”, on the other hand, are part of the “Google AdWords” scheme. 97% of Google’s income comes from advertising (source). They are expecting advertising income in the UK in 2011 to be about £2.5 billion. In fact, this year they are expected to out-run ITV as the biggest earner from advertising in the UK (source).

The way that these ads work on Google results pages is that the advertiser “bids” up to a defined amount to have his ad displayed when searchers enter certain words or phrases into the search box. But it’s not the actual displaying of the ad that costs the advertiser money. It costs him nothing unless the searcher actually clicks on his ad (which then takes them to the advertiser’s website).

So why should I care about the difference?

A lot of people maintain that they are never swayed by ads, never read them, would never click on them on a Google results page etc. These same people are happy, however, to use Google search to provide them with apparently “fair and impartial” organic results.

Well, I think that those people need to re-consider what’s actually going on here because the “organic” search results are most definitely NOT unbiased, value-free, simple reflections of the websites that are the most pertinent to their search term.

Google do not divulge how they work out which websites to display and in which order (known as ranking). They do, however, issue guides as to the kind of things that are most likely to impress them so that they show a particular website in their results and, just as importantly, how high up the list. They develop ever more complicated “algorithms” that are meant to fine-tune the validity of the results they display. “Validity”, however, is defined – in this context – by Google themselves and evaluated by their (secret) algorithms.

Since a good, high, listing in Google search results is a valuable asset to anyone wanting more website traffic, it stands to reason that it’s worth spending time (and money) honing a website so that it will be looked on favourably by the Google-gods. This means jumping through all of Google’s hoops (both known and guessed-at) to get the website up the rankings.

A whole industry (called “Search Engine Optimisation” or SEO) has developed to cater for this. If you own a website your are quite possibly being bombarded with unsolicited email and phone calls from so-called SEO experts promising to get your website ranked near the top of page one of Google results. As a provider of computer support, I would suggest that Google advertising in general, and SEO optimisation in particular, may well be marketing tools that you should investigate, but be very careful in selecting a company to act on your behalf.

So, my point here is not that we shouldn’t use Google search. After all, they have over 90% of the UK search market (source). My point is that all those purists who claim never to click on ads because they “never take any notice of advertising” (which is, of course, utterly impossible in our society) are being illogical by clicking on Google’s organic results as these organic listings are no more free or unbiased than the entries which are more openly listed under the heading of “ads”. Their appearance and prominence has just been paid for in a different way.

© 2011-2014 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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