Friday, November 8, 2013

Looking for "the catch"

Each week, my Tip Hero newsletter names a recommended Website of the Week. Most of them aren't particularly useful for me; some are sites I already knew about, some are offer deals on products or services I don't use very often (like travel), and some are apps for a smartphone, which I don't have. However, last week's Website of the Week was a site called PriceBlink, which actually looked mind-bogglingly useful. According to the article, when you download the free PriceBlink add-on to your browser, it stays hidden most of the time; however, whenever you view a product at an online shopping site, it will search its database of other merchant sites for the same product and let you know if any of them can sell it to you cheaper. It can also automatically find and display coupons for any store you're viewing. You can even set up a Wish List of products you're planning to buy, and the site will e-mail you when it finds something at the price you want.

Sounds great, right? Sounds like something no frugal shopper could afford to be without, in fact. Which is why my immediate reaction was not to download it immediately, but instead to ask myself, "What's the catch?"

See, I doubt that the people who developed the add-on and run the site (checking all those coupon codes to keep them up to date) are doing it purely for the fun of it. So if they aren't charging anything for the service, how are they making their money? I went to the PriceBlink site and read through the "About Us" and "FAQ" sections, and neither one answered this question. This made me even more suspicious, since I thought that if they weren't saying how the site makes money, it was likely to be by doing something they don't want you to know about—like tracking the web browsing history and purchases of everyone who uses the add-on, and then selling that information to data miners. (That doesn't actually bother me if they're just tracking the aggregate behavior of all their users—that is, keeping track of how many people use various sites and purchase various products—but if they are tracking my individual behavior in a way that can be traced back to me, that's crossing the line.) But no, I checked the site's terms of use and privacy policy, and it said very clearly that the site does not gather any personally identifying information except what you choose to provide; you don't need to submit any to get the add-on to work. In fact, Lifehacker specifically promotes PriceBlink as a price-comparison engine that's "privacy conscious."

Further down, the privacy policy discusses its use of "passive data," and here I got my first hint as to how PriceBlink might be making its money; the site admitted that it allows third-party cookies to gather "information about your visits to PriceBlink and other web sites" in order to show you targeted ads. However, pretty much every site seems to do that nowadays without even telling you about it; whenever I do a report for work on, say, refrigerators, I see nothing but ads for refrigerators for the next week or so. Moreover, the privacy policy stressed that "We do not provide these third parties with any personally identifying information," so while I may see targeted ads on my computer, they won't seek me out and find me when I'm on someone else's computer—and I can always get rid of them by clearing my cookies.

I wasn't sure this was the whole story, though, so I did a Google search on "How does PriceBlink make money?" That turned out to be a dead end, though; all I got was a bunch of articles touting PriceBlink as a way to save money. So I tried asking explicitly, "What's the catch with PriceBlink?", but the only other site I could find that seemed to have asked this question was a blog called Cafe Mom, and the blogger there said that she hadn't been able to find one. However, that search did turn up a news story from last year that listed the top fifteen most-searched-for items on Cyber Monday 2012, based on data from PriceBlink. This led me to conclude that my guess was right—PriceBlink is making money from selling data. However, based on the article and the privacy policy, it sounds like they're doing so only in the aggregate, and that, as I said, I can live with.

So at this point, I figured I had nothing to lose by clicking on the "add to Chrome" button. I did twitch a little when the browser popped up a message saying that this app could "Access your data on all websites" and "Access your tabs and browsing activity," but since I'd already looked into what the site did with that data, I felt confident enough to click "Add." I spent a few minutes playing with the little toolbar, seeing how it could show me price comparisons, coupons, and even product reviews. I don't know yet how much I'll use it, but having done my homework, I know it's not doing any harm by being there.

And that, I think, is the takeaway from this story: when you're offered a great deal on anything, it always makes sense to look for the catch. In some cases, like this one, there may not be one, or it may be one that you're perfectly happy to live with. But it might not be, so it pays to ask the question before clicking "Yes." And this is doubly true with anything that's free, because you know they wouldn't be offering it to you unless they expected to make money on it somehow. Maybe the book club is offering you five books for free because in order to get them, you have to buy ten books at ridiculously inflated prices, and so all fifteen books will end up costing more than they would on Amazon.com. Or maybe that Craigslister is giving away the old couch because it's infested with mold or bedbugs, and the listing neglected to mention the fact. Needless to say, I don't think that there must always be a catch with anything that's free; I wouldn't be such an avid Freecycler if I did. But I do think that if there is a catch, you'll never find it if you don't look.
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