If you're not paying, you're the product — so why not get some cashback?

If you're not paying, you're the product — so why not get some cashback?

Summary: Should we get paid to use the free services such as search engines and social networks?


You're valuable to free services: you're worth so much they're prepared to give you the service for free just to get you to use it. That might be because they can sell your eyeballs by putting an ad in front of you or because your behaviour on the site provides other useful information.

Sometimes you get an intrinsic reward for that too; knowing which search results you click on lets Google or Bing make the results better the next time someone searches for something similar.

Culture clashes on privacy; Silicon Valley, the government and you

Culture clashes on privacy; Silicon Valley, the government and you

Culture clashes on privacy; Silicon Valley, the government and you

But mostly when you interact, especially with big brands, on these sites what that does is let these companies charge similar brands to advertise to you. That's one reason why Yahoo bought Tumblr and why Pinterest is so highly valued; users there mark very specifically the things they're interested in, and might actually click on ads for, and eventually buy. As the truism goes — if you're not paying, you're the product.

If you look at the number of Facebook users and its annual revenue, as of 2012 you were worth about $5 a year to Facebook. Now you certainly wouldn't want to start paying for Facebook. But wouldn't you like, if not the whole $5 and a service you have to pay for, to get say $2.50 of that?

That's kind of what Bing Rewards does; you get points for searching on Bing and trying out new features like rollover video preview or linking to your Facebook account to see information from your friends that's relevant to a search.

When you get enough points you can trade them in for Groupon, Redbox, Amazon, Starbucks, ProFlowers, RedEnvelope or Tango Card gift cards and coupons, Xbox Live points, credit for Skype or Windows Phone apps, Hulu Plus subscriptions, competition entries, and charity donations.

Sure, you could see it as Microsoft paying you to use Bing and thereby improving the service as well as providing eyeballs to sell ads to, and to use new services so Microsoft gets feedback on how they work in practice.

When you first sign in to Bing Rewards, you can earn points just for seeing what features Bing has, and you get more points when your friends sign up for Bing Rewards. Microsoft wants Bing to get better and better — both to try to get some of the ad money that fills Google's coffers and to power things like the new smart search in Windows 8.1 and the "picks for you" custom app selections in the Windows 8.1 Store.

But you could also say it's Microsoft giving you back some of the money they make by mining your behaviour.

All the online services mine your behaviour and all of them make a business out of it, but few of them give you any of the cash back. Maybe Microsoft's move could be the start of a trend.

Topics: Big Data, Google, Microsoft

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • Is this a joke article?

    I really hope this is a joke article.
    Michael Alan Goff
    • Joke's on you

      So if your employer used semantic wizardy and told you, "Hey, I'm going to give you a career for FREE! You can use the office here for free!" you would jump at it and work for free?

      You demand to be paid for supplying your employer with the fuel for their wealth, so why not the same elsewhere?
      • Huh? You example makes no sense

        When I'm at work... I'm working.

        When you're surfing Google or putting up with ads on Facebook, you're not doing anything that warrants getting paid.
        Michael Alan Goff
  • I feel that google is paying me in a way

    by making the cost of the nexus 4 so cheap. $299 for a $549 class phone. I will allow them to know anything about me they want and I'll view any ads in return. You will get ads somewhere anyway so I don't care.
  • Nothing wrong with cashback

    But I'd rather get it from actual purchases, not from jumping through hoops.
  • ZDNet should pay me back for viewing this article

    I do visit ZDnet a lot and sometimes do click on the sponsored posts and watch other ads. Can Zdnet pay me for monetizing my visits to its site :)

    Just Kidding!
  • Yes we should get paid = intellectual property

    Our personal data is our personal intellectual property... no one but us has it.
    We can't use a corporation's logo and name to start our own business, so why shouldn't individuals possess intellectual capital rights?

    Yes, our intellectual capital makes these companies billions in cash. It's time to pay us for that intellectual property.
    • Wrong

      If you willingly give something away for a product, then you are owed nothing.

      You're already using their site for free, or using their other various services for free, don't be greedy.
      Michael Alan Goff
  • I asked myself: "Which MS product is Mary advertising here?"

    And discovered that the answer was "Bing".

    Color me unsurprised :-|.
  • cheap

    I am worth more than $2.5 a year, so deal.

    You in theory can buy anything, but the price is sometimes too high to afford.