“Ads with Eyes” – How am I Being Tracked Online?

Online advertising is evolving. Gone are the days where every visitor to a website saw the same banner ad, promising a fabulous prize. Advertising has become more subtle, with unique ads finely tuned to each individual, including you. Read on to get the story behind third-party cookies

“Ads with Eyes” Illustration © by Julie Fisher

Information, interests, and profiles are the new currency in advertising, and they come from tracking what you do online. The more a company knows about you, the more it can customize what you see. This precise tracking and targeting increases the likelihood of you responding to an ad, clicking on it, and ultimately buying a product or service.

If you’ve ever wondered how online tracking works, what it means to you, and what you can do about it, read on.

How does an advertiser track and understand your online behavior?

The main method used to track your online behavior and habits (behavioral-tracking) is known as a “Third-Party Cookie” or tracking-scripts.   These services aim to build a user profile by collecting, aggregating, and correlating an individual’s browsing behaviour, demographics, interests, and patterns of behaviour.

Using this information to target ads directly and individually at you is called “Personalised or Interest-Based Advertising.” This is different from “Context-Based Advertising” where the ads on a website relate to the topic of the website.

For example, with interest-based advertising you might see an ad for a smartphone on a book review website because you were browsing smartphones on a different site a couple of days ago. With context-based advertising, you’d be more likely to see ads for a novel on a book review website.

How many websites and companies are tracking me?

Collecting and sharing information about browsing habits is big business. In 2014 a study visited a total of 6497 unique  websites websites and identified 6817 third-party trackers, the study was called Anatomy of the Third-Party Web Tracking Ecosystem by Marjan Falahrastegar at Queen Mary University, London, and by gathering data from top 500 ranked (most visited) websites he and his fellow students found that for example, Google has over 40 third-party domains used all over the planet, Microsoft has 19, eBay 7 and so on.

There are over 1,300 businesses, using over 2,800 different types of trackers and technology to collect, analyze and use your personal data [source]. These companies work with the advertisers and advertising networks to show you relevant advertising based on your profile and interests.

Are you being followed? Third-party tracking in action

If you’ve ever felt that you’re being stalked by an ad, then you’re being tracked by a particular advertising technique called “Remarketing.” Remarketing happens when you go to a particular website that leaves remarketing trackers.

When you land on that website, it puts a cookie on your computer, to say you’ve visited. Then, when you go to other websites that show advertising, you’ll often see ads for the original website, triggered by the cookie. The idea is that you’ll go back to the original website and make a purchase. That’s why you’ll often see the same ad multiple times across many different websites. It’s personalized for you, to tempt you back to the original site.

What types of things do cookies track?

Third-party cookies track a variety of areas that are then linked to various profiles about you. Trackers can compile and associate many different pieces of information about you, including:

  • The type of device and browser that you’re using
  • The types of websites that you visit and how you use those websites
  • When you click on an ad and make a purchase
  • The topics and areas that you’re interested in
  • Your age, gender, and ethnicity
  • Where you live and how long you’ve lived there
  • Where you’ve traveled and how often
  • Your friends and family
  • Life events, like weddings, births, retirement
  • Your income, financial commitments, and creditworthiness
  • Your current health and medical history

Online tracking businesses and the data brokers that use them could be collecting  up to 1,500 pieces of data about you, your family, free time, interests and more [source]. In short, it’s a frightening amount of information, all designed to profile you and show you ads you’ll click on.

Is tracking always bad?

Like many things in life, the answer to this is, “it depends.” Some users like having relevant ads shown to them. In many cases, cookies can enhance the browsing experience by personalizing websites for you. Trackers aren’t inherently good or bad, but many people do see them as an invasion of online privacy.

It’s also important to understand the difference between first-party and third-party cookies. First-party cookies are used by websites to improve your browsing experience by remembering your password, personalizing a website and more. It’s the third-party cookies that are more invasive.

Are there any other concerns with third-party trackers and advertising?

Besides your online privacy and ad targeting, there are some other concerns with the use of third-party trackers, they are:

  • Visibility
    It’s not always easy to find out if you’re being tracked. It happens invisibly, in the background, as you use your browser to visit websites.
  • Security
    Although many of the tracking companies have good security in place, it only takes one data breach or hack to expose your profile information to others. Limiting the amount of information that businesses collect about you means that there’s less of an impact if your private information gets exposed.
  • Speed
    The increasing number of trackers on a website can significantly slow down your browsing experience. Because each tracker needs to be loaded separately, a website with lots of trackers on it will take longer to load.
  • Price “Optimization”
    Some websites actually adjust the prices they show you based on third-party tracking. Known as “Price Discrimination” or “Price Optimization,” the price you see for a particular product or service could be tailored based on your finances and other factors.
  • Data usage
    If you’re browsing on a mobile device, you might have limits on how much data you can download. Trackers and online advertising can significantly increase the amount of data that’s transferred; some estimates show that online advertising can increase data usage by between 10 and 50%

"Ads with Eyes" - illustration © by Julie Fischer

“Ads with Eyes” Illustration © by Julie Fisher