Why are Google and Facebook free? The answer might be worse than you think.

Google and Facebook are two prime examples in tech where the advertiser pays for the service. In return, these services are offered for "free" to the users.

2021-04-26 / Updated 2024-05-13
Google and Facebook are free, but whenever you type a search query into Google or like a post on Facebook, you are being tracked so that advertisers can bid for your attention.
Google and Facebook have become two of the most successful web companies because they have managed to convince everyone that their products are completely free. Yet, this is not true. The ad-based business model harms people and societies on so many levels, it must end now - and you can help end it!

The web - for free?

Google and Facebook both make one great promise to their users: Use their services and everything is free. However, this is not true. We all know that Google and Facebook make their money by selling advertisements. In fact, lots of advertisements. In 2023 alone, Google's ad revenue amounted to 237.86 billion US dollars, and Facebook's to 131.94 billion US dollars.

Who pays for Google and Facebook to be free?

The question is: Who pays for Google and Facebook to be free? The long answer is that companies pay Google and Facebook so that they display the companies' ads directed at you. After all, Google and Facebook together capture most of the internet's ad sales market globally. Ultimately, however, you - the users - are the ones that click the advertisements and that buy the products advertised. By using their seemingly ‘free’ products, you become the product.

So the short answer is: You pay Google and Facebook to be free.

If you've ever wondered whether Google products are free or whether Facebook is free, the answer is simple: Google and Facebook make billions by offering free services to the users, and selling your data and your attention to advertisers. How else do you think Google and Facebook could afford to provide these “free” services?

Free comes at a price

Google and Facebook selling your data and your attention might not seem problematic at first sight, but in fact it is. It's obvious that the highest priority for Google and Facebook is not user satisfaction, the highest priority is making advertisers happy to generate higher profits.

If this comes at the cost of abusing user privacy, collecting vast amounts of data, building detailed profiles about users, their attitudes, and their habits, then Google and Facebook are eager to do exactly this.

Loss of privacy & higher prices

To optimize their ad-based business models, Google and Facebook track you across the web, build detailed profiles about you, and abuse your private data to post the ads that most likely make you click – and they are extremely good at targeting you with relevant ads. While Google and Facebook like to present themselves as the new defenders of privacy, the opposite is true. The privacy-intrusive way of posting targeted advertisements will not only lead to an increased profit for Google and Facebook, it also influences your purchasing decisions and makes you buy products, which potentially are overpriced.

This business model has recently been described as surveillance capitalism, which sums up what Google are Facebook are doing pretty nicely.

While some might argue, they do not care whether they are tracked or not, there is definitely a downside when using 'free' services and paying with your data.

For instance, when you search for best flights available via Google, the prices you see might change based on various factors including your search history, your location, the device you are searching with, and other browsing habits. The prices displayed to you vary because of dynamic pricing algorithms, which take into account factors like demand, browsing history, and other user data to tailor prices exactly to you and your willingness to pay, according to the profile that has been created about you.

Broken business model

So if you’re wondering if ad-based business models are sustainable, there is strong evidence to suggest that they are not. As more and more people understand how problematic the ad-based business model is, they start to fight back: The rise of ad-blockers is a strong sign that people do not want their data abused by advertisers. This movement is constantly getting larger and starting to cause problems for the ad industry.

For example, even as the value of the digital ad industry continues to rise, the average click-through rate on Google's display ads fell to 0.46% in 2018. This suggests that the advertisements being sold are not effective, nor are they wanted by the website visitors. These are possibly the first signs that the ad-based business model is coming to an end.

Additionally, Google is facing antitrust lawsuits for abusing its monopolistic power in the online ad industry.

It is no secret that companies pay Google for Google Ads even, for instance, when the organic search is yielding good results. After all, paid promotions are displayed at the top taking away clicks from the organic search.

Harmful algorithms

On top of that, the algorithms that make Alphabet's Google and Meta's Facebook so successful when selling advertisements increasingly harm society.

Being in a social bubble strengthens extremist views, also because of the algorithms used by Google and Facebook. Basically, what the algorithm does is it displays similar content to what people have viewed or liked before. To keep the attention span at a maximum - which makes people stay on the platform longer, which in turn enables the platform to display more advertisements - suggested content needs to get a bit more extreme constantly.

This isn’t exactly surprising; consider the old journalistic mantra "If it bleeds, it leads". An algorithm that prioritizes keeping users engaged might therefore prioritize content that gets people angry or that tells people what they want to hear, even if it's false. Facebook's own internal review concluded, for example, that "64% of all extremist group joins are due to [Facebook's] recommendation tools". From this, one can conclude that Facebook has harmed society in the past, and most likely continues to do so.

These algorithms increasingly harm our societies and can even be used to undermine democracy.

Install an ad-blocker

All things considered, only the platforms - Google and Facebook - benefit from the ad-based business model while harming individuals as well as societies.

The best way you as a user can stop the ad-based business model is by installing an ad-blocker. By now, there are dozens of ad-blockers to choose from which allow you to watch your favourite clips on YouTube or to surf the web free of annoying ads that you already start seeing directly in your Gmail inbox.

Here is our selection of some free and paid ad blockers:

  • AdBlock Plus (Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Opera, Safari, Android, iOS)
  • AdBlock (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge)
  • Poper Blocker (Chrome)
  • Stands Fair AdBlocker (Chrome)
  • uBlock Origin (Chrome, Firefox)
  • Ghostery (Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Edge)
  • AdGuard (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS)
  • Blokada (Android, available on F-Droid)

The only way we can stop free services like Google and Facebook to profit from tracking us is by refusing to click any ads. In addition, you may want to check out these privacy-friendly alternatives to Google and Facebook.

A better web on the horizon

Luckily, better options are already available: We at Tuta are putting the user first. Instead of using and abusing user data for our own profits, we encrypt as much data as possible so that only the user has access to their data.

At Tuta, you come first!

While we do offer a free email service to enable everyone to enjoy a private web, we recommend to our users to upgrade to the paid version when they can afford to. Your support enables us to offer a truly privacy-friendly alternative, guaranteed without ads.

Together we can stop privacy-intrusive surveillance capitalism. Sign up for Tuta Mail now!

In contrast to free Google services, Tuta puts your needs first and respects your right to privacy In contrast to free Google services, Tuta puts your needs first and respects your right to privacy.