Next time you are on the Internet pay attention to the ads you see on the page. In particular, pay attention to the corners of the ads. Right there in the upper left or right, you will see a small triangle or similar icon, maybe one that says Ad Choices. Click on it.
What you find is a clue to why you are being served up that ad. The advertising market is tracking data about your browsing patterns, and serving you with ads that fit your profile.
Example – I’m looking at weather.com and I see an ad right now for Citibank. In the top left corner there is a triangle. When I click it, I get the small page that explains what I’m seeing. But it gives me a chance to go to another link where I can opt out, or I can find out more about the company behind this particular ad – a company called Evidon.
When I go to accuweather.com, I get an ad at the top for an electric company selling generators. They probably did that because of where they think I am located. A lot of the ads are purely based on IP address, so they have a good idea where I am and know that power failures are common for me.
Right there on the middle right of the page is an ad for HP. And this one is also served by Ad Choices, but when I click the triangle, I see it was actually served by TrustE, a different company perhaps. I can then go to the TRUSTe preference manager and change my profile, or just opt out completely.
All this works through cookies – cookies are set by the web site and ad agency. Clearing your cookies wipes out all the choices you make about opting out, or you can just prevent your browser from storing cookies in the first place.
So then we go to ESPN. Front and center is a video about Kobe Bryant. Instead of playing the video, right click and choose the Flash Player Settings. Choose Local Storage Settings, and see what information is being stored about you. In my case, there are six sites that want to save a total of about 1200 bytes of data about me and my browsing habits. They will use this to tailor the next ads and videos I see. I suppose if I never click on Kobe Bryant but always click on Stephen Curry, I will see a lot more Golden State Warriors videos. Of course, I will now be self-conscious about clicking on the videos for Entertainment Weekly. Many of these details are served by a company called Ooyala. You can choose not to allow them to save this data, but the user experience becomes painful. I wish the opt-out process worked a little more friendly. Maybe somebody will improve the anonomizer capabilities in the browsers.
The benefit to an advertiser is immense. These are really useful bits of information, and as an advertiser, I want to be able to maximize my benefit per buck. It is the same with direct mail – any company doing any direct mail these days is doing the same thing – selecting a list by zip code, or net worth, or what kind of car you drive. Everybody is in on it. The grocery store frequent shopper card is collecting information on what kind of orange juice you buy and that you tend to buy low cholesterol products, so don’t be surprised when you get an ad in the mail today for orange flavored Lipitor.