Have you ever seen an advertisement on web page that was eerily aware of your desire to buy some running shoes? That seemed to know about your need for a new car? I recently started seeing advertisements for “Rogue River Rafting” at just the time my wife and I started looking for plane tickets for our upcoming vacation to Oregon. Chances are good that you’ve seen the same thing.
How does it happen?
Fortunately there’s not much of a mystery as to how this happens! It starts with the fact that the internet is run on advertising money. Viewing web pages is free because the cost of maintaining the website is paid through advertising revenue. When you visit a web page and even accidentally click on an ad, the advertiser gives the website a little bit of money for sending you their way. It’s what makes the world turn, as they say.
“But,” you might ask, “How do they know it’s me clicking on the ad or visiting the site? How do they know that I’m going to Oregon?”
One way that your movements through the web are tracked is through “cookies,” which you’ve probably heard of but might not fully understand.
A cookie is a tiny file sent by a website and then stored by your browser somewhere on your computer. Cookies usually contain information about what page you visited and when you visited it.
Let’s say you visit an online store and search for an item. A cookie will likely be stored with information about the product you viewed. This allows the website to read that cookie later so it can remind you that you were interested in the product. Often, this is useful – it makes shopping easier when the site can intuit your interests.
Cookies like those from an online store are called first-party cookies because they come from the original site. For safety, only the website that set the cookie can read it.
But there’s a loophole! There’s another type of cookie, one that is set by a site that advertises on the original site. These are called third party cookies, and they don’t directly affect the function of the webpage. Instead, they act as a means of sharing information between sites.
Say that you visit Amazon.com looking for shoes. On the page is an advertisement for advertiser.com. The loophole is that your browser will then allow advertiser.com to set its own cookie on your computer. Next, you visit CNN.com to read an article. If advertiser.com works with CNN in addition to Amazon, it can tell CNN that you just went to Amazon looking for shoes. Then advertiser.com and CNN can choose a shoe advertisement — just for you — to display on CNN.
Third party advertising companies can get a good idea of what websites you visit if the ad company has a relationship with enough of them. The ad company won’t know every site you visit, but it might know about a surprising number of them, depending on how many websites the company works with. And the more information they have, the more precisely they can target their ads.
When my wife and I got engaged a few years ago, she changed her Facebook status to “engaged.” The ads Facebook chose for her were what you’d expect: wedding planners, vacation destinations, minivans. We got married soon after, but a few years went by, status unchanged. Guess what happened? She started seeing ads for psychics, love doctors, and beauty products!
So Facebook’s marketers are fairly sophisticated with how they use the information you post. In addition, they have recently started peddling your external browsing history to advertising companies. “Wait,” you might ask. “How does Facebook know what other sites I visit!?”
Have you ever seen a page with a “Like” button? That page will set a cookie in the same manner as a third party advertiser. (In this case, Facebook is the third party!) What this means is that Facebook, itself an ad company, can construct a large map of your browsing patterns by tracking all the pages you’ve visited with a Facebook icon.
Perhaps you can anticipate how Google fits in. Google logs every search you make, and every result you click on. Google then sells this information to anyone in its “display network” of advertisers so that they can effectively market products.
You click on this link from Google search:
Here’s the URL you are actually clicking on, allowing Google to log your search:
This is how that little ad for “Rogue River Rafting Trips” started showing up on my computer. When I searched for plane tickets, Google logged and then immediately sold that piece of information to a company that organizes rafting trips. When I went to a second website the rafting company paid to advertise on, an ad for rafting trips showed up instantaneously.
As we’ve seen, the ability to outline a web user’s interests and habits is very valuable commodity, and since Google owns some of the Internet’s most popular sites (Google search, YouTube, Gmail, etc.), its ability to pattern browsing habits (and monetize this information) is extensive. Inasmuch as information is power, Google has a lot of it!
Should I be scared?
We’ve gone into detail about how browsing information is collected when you visit websites and how it is used. But should you be worried about how much information is collected or what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands?
- How much they know
Google, Facebook, and other companies know an awful lot about you, but not everything. These sites can know what searches you make, what pages you visit, and how often you visit those pages. That’s an awful lot of information, and it allows marketers to paint a thorough picture of how you use the internet and what things you might be likely to purchase.
There are limits, however, to the types of data that are collected. Personal information like your name and credit card number is not shared by any of these companies.
- How safe they keep it
Is it a problem for companies to store the information they do store? There are some benefits of allowing your data to be tracked, and many companies have (at least in name) altruistic intentions. Google and Facebook, for example, can point to the many ways that granting access to your browsing data allows them to more effectively show you information you might actually care about.
Have you ever noticed how Google finishes your searches for you? They are able to do such a good job, in part, because they have looked at your recent searches for clues about what your next ones might be. Your search results, too, are tailored for you, personally. It’s often very helpful! These are a few of the many examples of your browsing and search history being used in meaningful ways.
And since these companies are interested in revenue, they are careful not to breach the trust of consumers. Selling information to untrusted parties or allowing it to leak would negatively impact their ability to affect your buying decisions and is simply not in their best interest. It’s bad business!
Further — and this is an important distinction to make — an online company collecting information about your browsing history is not the same thing as having your identity stolen, which is in fact a very serious concern. (Ask any of us with benefits through UGA!) Marketers might send you uncannily pinpointed ads, but they won’t be opening a bank account or issuing fake credit cards under your name.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you are comfortable with the amount of information these companies track. Where many see the benefits of personalized search results and ads, others see unnerving amounts of personal information being collected. If you fit in the former category, the good news is that you don’t have to do anything to participate! If the latter, you have the hard work of keeping up with technology: turning off third party cookies, finding opt-out settings, reading privacy and license agreements, using search engines that don’t track you, and making hard decisions about the sites you affiliate yourself with.