The Free World of the Web

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As my dad would often say, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." The phrase originated with an offer first proffered in American saloons in the mid-1800s. In order to draw patrons, drinking establishment would offer free lunch as long as patrons purchased a drink with their meal. Elaborate economic discourses have ensued over the years, arguing that a free lunch is a logical impossibility. Still, if search data is any indication, we're obsessed with finding just about anything that's free.

Using the Hitwise database of U.S. Internet searches, I've amassed the most popular 10,000 search queries that contain the term "free." When compared to all Internet searches, terms that contain "free" are by far the most popular. For the week ending June 16, 2006, over 3.9% of all searches in the U.S. contained the term "free." The hunt for cost-free products and services ranged from "free games" (at 0.73%, the most popular of all "free" queries) and "free music" (0.70%) to searches for free ringtones, credit reports and myspace layouts. But by far the most searched for free items are of the prurient nature: four of the top 20 free searches are "free sex stories," "free sex," "free sex videos," and "free sex pics."

"Freeness" is seasonal; searches spike during the holiday season, surpassing 4.2% of all internet searches as holiday shoppers are lured by "free shipping" offers. Summers show an equivalent rise in free queries, as boredom and more leisure time drive interest in "free games," "free chat," "free movies" and of course "free myspace layouts."

The most surprising part of our "free" quests is just how optimistic our searches can be. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but plenty of people look for the 78th most searched-for term, "free money." (Meanwhile, "free cash" is in the 1581st position.) I entered the query into Google to see if perhaps I had been missing out. The search results are dominated by a number of listings for sites that help you find federal grant money (not free—those are my tax dollars at work), sponsored listings for different loan products (definitely not free) and advertisements for services that help you find unclaimed funds.

It's ironic that, among the 10,000 "free" search terms, even into the long-tail of unique queries, there is one search term that is noticeably absent. Maybe the adage has conditioned us to think that searching for it would be even more futile than "free money." There's not a single search for "free lunch."