We have all experienced online advertisements which seem to follow us around on the Internet, be it on Facebook, Instagram, Google or Twitter. It could be that one ad you clicked through once for a watch (or perhaps you did not even click through it but it appeared on your Sponsored posts), and it seems to haunt your every turn on the web now.
These ads have gotten so good at tracking us online and following us around that they are almost inevitable to avoid. Needless to say, their perseverance can often pay off in the end when ‘victims’ succumb to persisting ads following them with every single turn on the Internet (*ahem* speaking from the true voice of a real-life victim).
So how did these ads get so good at stalking us (even better than that creepy ex-lover of ours silently watching our Instastories) even when we are browsing in Incognito, or switched up our devices? Are these targeted ads honed to understand our online buying preferences useful to us? Or just downright creepy?
This is probably the most common tracking tool you have heard of used for targeted advertising, because it is also one of the oldest techniques. When you surf a website, the website will store a cookie in your web browser. What is the cookie used for? The next time you return to the website, the cookie recognises you and shows you the products you were viewing earlier.
There are also another form of cookies created by third-party networks. These type of cookies are used to identify you on a different site which may carry ads from the same network. This way they are able to display ads based on the ones you were viewing even from a different site before (“retargeting”/”remarketing”).
Whenever you Google for a product or website while you are signed in to your Google account (on desktop/Android/iPhone), you are enabling Google to build a profile on you and your interests based on your searches, even if you are using a voice assistant. Hence, when you log on anywhere else with your Google account again, you will see ads based on the profile Google has personalised for you.
To check your online activity tied to your Google account, check your Google My Activity.
Websites can install tracking pixels which convey your online activity back to them and display targeted ads in your newsfeed based on when you are using their services and what you were looking at (Hello Facebook ‘Like’ button!)
The tiny 1×1 pixels are made to be camouflaged or transparent but will identify your unique IP address and relay this back to the web server to know when you are performing a certain action such as visiting a site, opening emails, or viewing a digital ad.
After registering your details and creating an account with a particular website, the website may upload a list of their customer email addresses to other sites such as Google or Facebook to target a campaign. When you then visit these sites, you are served the targeted ads based on the items you were looking at earlier.
What if you are in incognito mode? (which supposedly limits your cookies & clears your browsing history)
Websites can also use fingerprinting, which is by identifying you using characteristics of your browser. Whenever you load a webpage, unbeknownst to you, your information such as your browser, operating system, screen size, time zone, plug-ins and other characteristics create a profile about you which is broadcasted to the website you are on.
The website or network displaying the ads recognise your browser fingerprints and you see the adverts based on your fingerprint even if you are in incognito mode.
Apps do not have cookies but they do have something called advertising IDs on app. Advertising IDs are what uniquely identifies your mobile or tablet and sends this unique device ID to the app creator instead. When you sign in to it on your online account, your advertising ID is now associated with that account so whenever you sign in to that account on your other devices or a different app, you will get ads based on the app you were using earlier.
This can be a pretty creepy one because it does not even require you to have visited a particular site to be targeted.
As long as your demographics such as your age group, interests, Likes, mutual, or location proximity are similar to those who have, you could be targeted as a group under a “lookalike audience”.
Even sharing an IP address with members in a household by connecting to the same broadband router can cause you to be in a targeted similar group because of your shared IP address.
Targeted advertising is not something new. And advertisers will continue to find new ways to capture audiences to transfer them into sales, because to put simply: it works.
What are your thoughts on personalised ads?