An email address is one of the most private and intimate places we have online. It’s where we tell stories, share photos, make plans, get discounts and pretty much every other reason for communicating with others on the Internet. Sometimes you’re emailing just 1 person and other times 100, but either way you want to be sure of who exactly is going to be reading your words after you press the send button.

There are many free email providers out there, making it affordable for anyone to have their own address. And unlike the early days of email, free services like Gmail or Yahoo Mail aren’t limited by small storage limits. You can now get gigabytes of storage — way more than you’ll ever need — without ever needing to pay a cent.

So what’s wrong here? Why would you ever pay for email when you can get great services for nothing?

Advertising: The Real Cost of Free Email

A few months ago I got an offer from a software company to meet with my team for a free lunch. When I mentioned it to my manager, he replied with the following words of wisdom: “there’s no such thing as ‘free lunch.’”

The same can be said of free email. Yes, you can get a “free” email address, but Google didn’t magically become a $360 Billion company by not charging anything. Someone needs to be footing the bill, and in the case of Google, Yahoo and most other free email, the revenue comes from advertisers.

Have you ever noticed how advertising is really relevant to you online? Perhaps you’ve been reading an email from your friend about her trip to Hawaii and an ad is beside it showing that airfare to Hawaii is on sale right now. Or maybe you’ve been going through a breakup and you’ve been seeing a lot of ads for dating services. These hyper-targeted ads aren’t guess work; they’re the result of information that’s been gathered about you based on sites you’ve visited, search terms you’ve used, and you guessed it, from the emails you’ve been sending and receiving.

How Your Email Gets Scanned

Don’t worry, there hasn’t been a group of people hunched over a computer and munching on popcorn while laughing at the poem you wrote for your girlfriend last Valentine’s Day. It would be impossible even for a company like Google to hire a staff of people to read every single email that gets sent and choose an ad best suited to that situation.

Instead, complex algorithms have been created to search for keywords. For example, if you have a lot of emails with the word ‘photography’ in it, then Google will take that as a cue that you’re interested in photography.

This is the same method used by many email clients in order to detect junk mail. If you’ve marked 10 emails as junk and they all have the word ‘pill’ in them, the program will start to move mail with that word in it to your junk folder so it stops annoying you.

With free email, however, this data is utilized to follow you elsewhere online. Many emails with the word ‘flowers’ in it will not just show an ad for a local flower shop inside the Gmail interface but will also be shown in search results and even on some websites you visit as well.

Should You Be Concerned?

To Google’s credit, they are very upfront about all of their personal data collection. In their Privacy Policy they state:

“We collect information to provide better services to all of our users – from figuring out basic stuff like which language you speak, to more complex things like which ads you’ll find most useful, the people who matter most to you online, or which YouTube videos you might like.”

While some people are fine with seeing ads that are more relevant to them, others can find this very unnerving. An email address is supposed to be a personal space that only you can access. Seeing an advertisement on a website that’s being shown because of a conversation you had with your mom can feel like an invasion of privacy and downright creepy.

What You Can Do About It

If the thought of your emails being dissected for clues about how to best sell you stuff is a little too much to stomach, then there are some things you can do to prevent this from happening.

One solution is to opt out of receiving personalized ads in your settings; however, your emails will continue to be scanned, and you may still see contextual ads within the email interface — they just won’t be seen in other places like search results.

The other option is to ditch the free email and pay for email instead. By paying for email with a service that guarantees your mail is ad-free, you are not only paying for the service but for the knowledge that your ads will not be scanned in order to convince you to buy more stuff. Just think of it this way: it’ll be much cheaper than all the money you’ll spend on products or services that pop up when they’ve been on your mind the most!

At Hover, we have a number of different email options for you to add to a custom domain. We have a Small Mailbox which should be more than enough, or a Big Mailbox if you plan on sending a lot of videos of your cat. Plus, you’ll also have a better-looking email because it’ll be coming from your own domain name (e.g. you@yourdomain.com vs. you@gmail.com).

If you want to get your own email address, now’s the time — they’re $10 off until the end of the month! Click here to learn more.

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