Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Web ads often relate to the topic displayed on the page. If that's your email, then the ads may well relate to the content of message you're reading.

In your previous news letter you answered some questions related to Quarantine in anti virus and another one about FTP. When I opened your newsletter in my inbox (gmail-free account), on the right hand side I could see lots of advertisements related to anti virus and FTP tools etc. How do they come if Google doesn't read my email content? what about privacy then??

Ads are, of course, one of the prices you pay for your use of a free service like Google's Gmail. Naturally, it's in Google's best interest to show you the most interesting, and relevant ads possible. In fact, it's kind of in your best interest too.

So yes, to do that Google does read your email. But Google doesn't really read your email.

I know that's a tad confusing and I'll try and sort it out.

Your Email Provider Can See All

It's important to realize that your email provider - any email provider - can see your email. Unless you've somehow encrypted it the full text and contents of any email you send or receive could be viewed by your email provider - be it your ISP, Google, Hotmail or some other service.

"Advertising to support free services is a very real and practical necessity."

That's simply the way email works, and always has. (The same's actually true for instant messaging and texting as well.)

The key thing to realize is that given the massive amounts of email that are sent every day, your mail provider just doesn't have the time to pay attention to all that email.

To put it more bluntly: you're just not that interesting. Sure, they could read your email, but why would they? Unless you've got law enforcement watching you for some reason, there's just no reason that anyone would care.

So, no, it's highly unlikely that anyone but you or your recipient is paying attention to the contents of your email.

If you're truly concerned and have something that you must keep private even from the infinitesimal chance your email provider might peek, then you probably shouldn't be using free services, and you should seriously consider encrypting your email - even though email encryption remains very difficult in any general sense.

Contextual Advertising

So, what then about those incredibly well targeted ads you're seeing when you read your email?

If you're reading this article on my web site, then it's pretty much the same as the Google ads that are shown along side this text. The software that selects the ads reads the contents of the page looking for relevant keywords to get a sense of what the page is about, and then tries to display ads that are targeted at or near that same topic.

I've often joked that the Google ads on Ask Leo! are often so well targeted that they are an answer for some people. (They're still ads, don't get me wrong, but sometimes they're amazingly well targeted.)

That's all that happens when you read you email in Google's web interface. The ad serving software looks at your email - you can call it "reading your email" if you like - and tries to identify via relevant keywords what the email message is about. It then uses those keywords to pull ads from its inventory of available ads that are semi related.

That's absolutely why when you are reading an email all about, say, FTP, the ads along side might well be from various FTP related vendors and for FTP related tools and services.

It's A Good Thing, Really

Advertising to support free services is a very real and practical necessity. Ask Leo! itself would not exist in its present form without advertising revenue. None of the other approaches to revenue that people sometimes suggest - such as donations - would come anywhere close. This is one of the reasons that wholesale ad-blockers - tools that block ads on all sites - make me very uncomfortable; they are blocking the very thing that allows sites like Ask Leo! and the majority of the internet to be free to everyone.

Gmail's and other free email services are no different - they're ad supported.

So, given that you will see ads, which is more useful: ads that are completely random and have absolutely no interest to you, or ads that actually relate to the things you do, see and talk about every day?

Naturally, I'd claim the latter.

Don't Like It? Alternatives

Aside from simply ignoring the ads, which most people probably do, there's really only one way to avoid contextual advertising in your email:

  • Don't use the service.

For that matter, it's the right solution to avoiding contextual advertising - or advertising in general - if that's you're desire. If you don't want to see ads, then don't visit sites that are advertising supported and don't use services that are advertising supported.

For Gmail specifically there is one additional alternative:

  • Use a desktop email client rather than the web email interface.

Gmail supports POP3 access to your email which allows you to download the email to your PC and view it there. There are no ads when you do this. It's only the web interface to Gmail that has advertising.

Just make sure, as always, that you're backing up your PC and email whether you download or not.

Article C4421 - August 28, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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12 Comments
David Prentice
August 28, 2010 10:35 PM

Another way to protect your privacy on Google is to continue using it, but prevent them from reading your emails and make money by marketing to you. The free CloakGuard browser plugin let's you Cloak your GMAIL messages. (It also works with Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo).

You still use GMAIL the same way, but select the message you'd like to keep private, pick a Keyword and CLOAK it before sending. Then, neither Google nor its advertising partners can read your messages. Only those people you've shared your keyword with can read your message.

Free Download - https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/194385/
Free Online tool - http://cloakguard.com/tryitfree.php
Demo - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4qN3TBqx08

BigJohnT
August 31, 2010 5:16 AM

Ad block Plus also removes the Google ads on the side of all emails.

Nick
August 31, 2010 5:40 AM

I use Adblock however I take your point about ads. Of course Adblock doesn't block ads that are embedded in the website, such as your messages from your sponsors. But Yahoo in particular has advertising that is really annoying, because it flashes and jumps about in the corner of my vision, so I have no compunction in blocking it.

Roy H Huddleston
August 31, 2010 3:09 PM

I use Thunderbird 3.0.6 and it works well for me. I am wondering if Instantbird will ever come out of the beta stage.

Gail R.
August 31, 2010 9:09 PM

I sort of like the ads off to the side on my gmail; they're related to my email subjects and therefore are of some interest to me.
My "laugh of the day" is when I go into my 'spam'
folder, and the advert tie-in that comes up is
"recipes for Spam" meat product!

Glen P.
September 5, 2010 8:09 AM

Leo, you wrote:

So yes, to do that Google does read your email. But Google doesn't really read your email.

I move to strike out your first use of the word "read" and insert in lieu thereof the phrase "scan, using its search engine," so that the passage, if so amended, would read:

So yes, to do that Google does scan, using its search engine, your email. But Google doesn't really read your email.

Surely that would be much clearer!

Is there a second to the motion...?

Eli Coten
September 27, 2010 2:46 AM

You mention GMail's PO3 support. It also supports imap which also allows the email to be read in a 3rd party mail client.

Raj
November 8, 2011 4:03 AM

I've known about key word targeting for a long time, and it doesn't bother me (as long there's nothing annoying about the ads themselves). I am a little concerned, however, about something I noticed today. Yesterday, I sent a friend an e-mail via a gmail account with a picture of my cat attached. When I opened my friend's reply this morning, the sidebar had ads for cat-related products. Neither my original letter nor my friend's reply contains any references to cats or cat-related issues (not even the lolspeek term "kitteh"). Furthermore, the pic is a tad on the blurry side, and the lighting isn't very good. I get what you say about my not being interesting enough for Google to read my e-mail personally, but it seems to me that unless G is using image scanners that are sensitive enough to recognize a cat in a not-very-good picture taken by an amateur with a cheap digital camera, some human must have seen that picture. It could be a coincidence, I suppose, but as a Star Trek character said, "I believe in coincidences. Coincidences happen every day. But I don't trust coincidences." Can you shed any light on this, Leo?

joni
March 6, 2012 11:07 AM

I don't have any ads in my web-gmail. What do I wrong?

mike
March 15, 2012 4:39 AM

Yes they read your email. I was getting hit up my google every couple of days to come interview with them. After a doctor visit in which they discovered cancer, I wrote an email to family members about my cancer at that point all emails from google about a job stopped.

carmen
April 25, 2012 5:22 AM

been emailing my sibs/lawyer about possible tm issues on google. I did no ask google a thing, then i get email from adword express that i am being dropped due to tm issue.so, i call & find they just picked up on it - what? after using the same name on my site for years and only a few months of using adwords,now there is a tm issue? explain that? suffice it to say, this has changed my online presence and things could get worse-

Reggy
February 20, 2013 1:59 AM

I had the same experience like Mike, so YES they read your mail.

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