Mother Nature Network – it sounds like a warm and friendly, huggy and human kind of place – the sort of news web site that might hand you a warm, freshly-baked gluten-free cookie when you visit. It’s a web site that celebrates the “Joy of Less”, so you might expect its web design to be minimal, offering just plain information without all the technical behind-the-screen widgets that dominate the Internet these days.
I don’t know any of the human beings who work on Mother Earth News. They may be fine people. My expectations of a simple, open and honest online architecture from the Mother Nature Network were contradicted this morning, when I discovered that the site uses software that tries to push its readers through a “purchase funnel” – the online equivalent of a dog’s cone of shame.
The Ghostery privacy plugin in my Firefox browsers informs me that the Mother Nature Network uses 10 different applications to track its users’ online behavior and then push advertisements at them. One of these applications, Vizu, is implemented on MNN with the purpose of “moving their target audience through the purchase funnel, from building awareness to creating intent and preference.”
The purchase funnel refers to a hidden structure within the Mother Nature Network website aimed at the manipulation of reader behavior, with the goal of getting them to buy products and build brand loyalties. The articles at Mother Nature Network are tools in this scheme for luring people into the purchase funnel.
If you visited the Mother Nature Network without using a privacy plugin like Ghostery, you would never know that this spy-to-buy software was at work behind the scenes at the MNN web site. A tiny, light gray “privacy” link down at the bottom of the Mother Nature Network site leads to a page that informs viewers that “third party ad-serving companies or ad networks may compile information about where you are using your computer, where you saw their advertisements, and which ads are clicked on,” but there’s no way that a person can ever learn about this spybot software without first being subjected to it. It’s a spy first inform later philosophy – and the information is only there if you happen to think to search for it.
Is that how a Mother Nature web site should operate?