Ask Leo: Are You Being Stalked by Ad Networks?


By Leo Notenboom

I feel like I’m being stalked. I see the same ad all over the place. The thing is that my wife doesn’t; she sees normal ads on the same pages that I see this stalker ad. What’s going on?

People get pretty wrapped up when it comes to advertising, particularly
anything that uses the word “tracking.” They feel – as you probably do –
that someone is tracking them specifically.

Well … yes and no.

Advertisers and advertising networks use as much information as possible to
provide advertisements that are relevant to you and your needs. Sometimes, that might look like they’re following you around a little.

I see the most common example right here on Ask Leo! I’ll use that as a
place to start.

Contextual Advertising

Many web sites, including Ask Leo!, use Google AdSense to provide ads on the
site, for which the site owners get paid.

Services, like AdSense, are called “contextual” advertising, because when
asked to display an ad on a page, they’ll look at what that page contains and
then try to display ads that are relevant to the topic.

In other words, I don’t choose what gets advertised – Google does.

On one hand, it’s not always spot-on. On the other, Google’s advertising
service takes much more than just page content into account. The
concept is pretty simple: provide advertisements that are as relevant
to what you’re doing as possible.

Of course, that means they’re interested in what you’re doing.

Tracking does not imply personally identifiable

We talk often about “tracking cookies”, which is one of many ways that
advertising services determine “what you’re doing”.

For example, if you run around and visit a few web hosting service web sites,
as I sometimes do, you may find that advertisements on completely unrelated
sites are suddenly all about web hosting.

I can see that it might feel like they’re stalking you.

What’s happened, however, is that the advertising service has collected
information about where you’ve been – typically, through ads that it placed on
those sites as well – and uses that to infer, “This person is looking at a lot
of web hosting sites. He must be looking for web hosting. Let’s show him ads
for web hosting.”

I run into this all the time. I regularly visit my own hosting
service’s site, and for quite a while afterwards, almost every site that I visit that
runs Google’s AdSense shows me ads for that host.

Does that imply that they know what Leo Notenboom is doing, that I specifically
am being watched?

Not at all. If it did, they’d know that I’m already a customer. All that it means is
that a computer algorithm somewhere simply noticed, “This browser visited
these sites, so let’s feed it these ads.”

Advertisers and advertising networks don’t care about you as an
individual; what they care about and watch are the actions of millions
of people in order to understand trends. They care about what the most people
are looking for and acting on.

As an individual, you just aren’t that interesting.

Article continued here

This post is excerpted with Leo’s permission from his blog.

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