Sherlock users, Ur 0wn3d!

This article first appeared on IBM developerWorks.

Apple's search engine gets in your face with banner ads that are tough to turn off

Peter Seebach (

August 2001

Update: A number of people have written to point out that a lot of searchsites complained that they were getting no ad revenue when Sherlock searched their sites, and that this is why Apple added ads to Sherlock. This is a reasonable thing; what's not reasonable is that Apple insists on showing you ads for Apple products when you're viewing a site that doesn't provide ads to Apple, because it doesn't depend on ad revenue. For instance, an online store may want Sherlock users to search its product listings -- and may well not want the users to be bombarded with ads for Apple's (competing) online store.

Apple's Sherlock search engine makes it extremely difficult for users to turn off advertisements. Peter takes a look at how this works, and why this is philosophically inconsistent with usability.

Sherlock: Searching the Web... for ads

The big advertised feature of Apple's recent MacOS releases has been Sherlock, a generic search engine. Want to search a new site? Just add a plug-in for it, and Sherlock can search it.

This is a really cool idea. My bookstore-of-choice, Powell's, has a Sherlock plug-in, and it's quite convenient. I put in a couple of keywords, and I get lists of books, including pricing. I can click on a link and be sent straight to a Powell's page that's ready to sell me the book I'm interested in. I might even switch to using it as my default way to shop for books.

That is, if I could turn off the ads.

I'm not blaming Powell's. They didn't put the ads there. Sherlock, whenever it is searching anything other than local media, displays banner ads. If the specific plug-ins you're using don't define their own ads, you get Apple banner ads, apparently downloaded fresh from Apple. If they do define ads, you get to download new ads from the producer of the plug-in you're using.

You can't get there from here

It gets worse. You can't remove a plug-in that Apple provided. You can delete it, but it'll just come back, because Sherlock will "update" it. You can deselect it, so it won't be used for your search -- but the next time you start Sherlock, it's selected again, in case you "accidentally" decide not to search at a vendor with whom you've had a bad experience.

There seems to be no escape. There is no preference setting that tells Sherlock to stop doing this. If you have a network connection, Sherlock will go ahead and update its list of banner ads and vendors, and it will update them based on who pays Apple, not based on your preferences.

Then there's the Amazon issue. I don't like Amazon -- I've got too many friends who have been spammed by them. Amazon periodically claims not to spam, but I know people who have mysteriously started getting mail from them without asking for it. That's spam. However, if I use Sherlock's shopping channel, it will search Amazon. If I remove Amazon's plug-in, it just gets added back again -- selected, of course. I'm not allowed to say "no" like that; I have to leave them in the list, so I can change my mind later when I'm ready to accept Steve Jobs as my personal shopping advisor.

Whose computer is this?

In a matter of 20 minutes or so, Apple has converted me from, "Wow, this is an awesome toy, let me see if I can get other plug-ins for it" to "I can't believe the nerve of these people." The whole system revolves around making sure I see ads. Ads for big companies. Ads for Apple. Ads that keep me solidly in the arms of Apple's business partners. Ads to make sure that Apple keeps getting money from me, directly or indirectly.

I paid for this computer. On my other system, I even paid $100 for the new Mac OS that came with Sherlock, and another $100 a year later for the newer Mac OS that came with Sherlock, the version that now believes it has dibs on my immortal soul.

It seems that I didn't pay enough. Apple won't let me just use this so-called "tool" without paying an ongoing toll. Sherlock isn't a search-engine for me; it's an ad-engine for Apple and its marketing partners.

Does it work?

Does it work? That's always the hardest question. I guess it probably "works"; people are doubtless putting up with the ads. On the other hand, a casual search found me a good half-dozen Web pages with instructions, or programs, for removing the little banner ads. Of course, nothing to keep the program from downloading new banner ads, or reinstalling the ones it has. You can't do that, and it's clearly crimethink to even contemplate it.

The amount of effort that's gone into making sure that you have to follow Apple's plan is really astounding. I don't feel like I'm using a piece of software. I feel like I'm trying to break into a computer -- my computer. It's as if I'm trying to restore a system that someone broke into and defaced. That "someone" is Apple.

Apple has figured out a way to make sure that everyone who uses the default tool that comes with the Mac will end up viewing ads that make Apple even more money. I'd rather not see those ads, but the search tool Powell's gave me (which, I will point out, does not try to show me a banner ad -- so I get the default Apple one) is really, really useful. I'm an American; convenience is more important to me than privacy or personal rights.

So, I'll probably keep using Sherlock. I've built my own channel, which only has Powell's in it, so I only see the Apple ads. Ads for a computer just like the one I'm typing this on. Perhaps they haven't figured out yet that I'm the "PETER SEEVACH" in their customer database. But they will, and they'll start showing me ads for things I haven't bought. Yet. But I will, and if I don't like that, it's just too bad; Apple's already decided.

Let the user decide

It's amazing how easy it is to make your users hate you; just take control away from them. I liked Quicken 98 a lot... but I stopped buying their products, because Quicken 98 will, until the day it dies, remind me every year about their tax software... and about their online service offerings, some of which have been discontinued. I can't turn the little "reminders" off. Once again, it's not enough for me to buy the product; I have to look at the ads.

Let the user decide. Make sure that anything that isn't part of the definition of your functionality is optional. If your product is a search engine, that's the only feature I'm using; ads should be optional. This applies more to software people buy than to Web pages; on the other hand, a number of pages are now selling "subscriptions" that turn off the ads. I'm thinking of buying one.

Finally, know this: If you don't make ads optional, someone else will make them optional for you...

Patches, patches, and more patches

Apple isn't the only company in the world with programmers. After I wrote most of this article, I posted to Usenet, and I did some reading on my own time. Sherlock uses what appear to be XML files for configuration. After a few very exciting experiments (and crashes) I was able to, using a third party editor, alter the configuration files that tell Sherlock when to go looking for new "channels." I was able to make the search engine stop "updating" my channels. And, a nice guy by the name of "Andrew Watters" wrote a little patch that makes Sherlock stop displaying banner ads. It still displays a large blank area where the ad was going to be, but at least it doesn't waste time downloading pictures.

After a couple hours of work, and some help from a third party, and a few system crashes, I have finally managed to take back a little control of my computer. I resent this. I resent that I had to do it at all, I resent that it was not particularly easy to do, I resent that trying to do this can crash the system, and I resent that Apple probably doesn't care that I resent this. So, in a way, Apple has the last word. You'll spend a lot of time looking at their ads, or you'll spend just as much time turning them off.

As the script kiddies say, "Ur 0wn3d, d00d."

This week's action item: Think of how many programs you use that, in and of themselves, offer you ads. (A browser visiting a page with an ad doesn't count; a browser popping up its own ad does.) Can you turn the ads off? Do you think this is reasonable?


About the author

Peter SeebachrPeter Seebach has been having trouble navigating through badly designed pages since before frames and JavaScript existed. He continues to believe that, some day, pages will be designed to be usable, rather than being designed to look impressive. You can reach him at