Are you creeped out by those online ads that pop up next to your emails or the articles you’re reading?
You know, the ads for products you recently browsed on the Web: that GPS device that Amazon calls a “deal,” those boots that looked oh-so-tempting.
If you feel you are being followed online, you are. Thanks to the increased sophistication of technology and data mining, these ads are more targeted to Web users and more prevalent than ever.
And it may only get worse, in light of Google’s recent announcement
that as of March 1 the search giant is going to combine and share its user data across the different Google products, including those that offer a sign-in, like Gmail.
The industry calls these online advertisements “behaviorally targeted ads” or “interest-based” or “retargeted” marketing. Whatever the name, the ads show up because marketing companies track your visits to websites then use that information to send you ads.
The process used to be more generic: If you’d been browsing auto sites to compare features and prices, a car company ad would pop up. Although that still happens, the ads have become increasingly laser-focused. Now, if you’re researching a new car online, you won’t just see an ad for, say, Ford, but one for the very model you’ve been looking at and a nearby dealer where you can buy it.
The online marketing industry says these ads benefit consumers by providing comparison-shopping tools and serving as handy reminders about sales. Tracking also lets companies send you only ads you’d ostensibly be interested in, so sports fans receive offers for baseball tickets, not ballet. (Of course, computers can misunderstand you; post online about someone being “in the doghouse,” and you could soon be seeing ad after ad to purchase a doghouse.) The industry also says that the revenue from these types of ads helps support many websites that are providing content for free.
Although there are many ways you can limit these ads, there’s “no one silver bullet” that makes it easy, according to Erica Newland, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology
“There are tools out there,” says Maneesha Mithal, assistant director of the division of privacy and identity protection at the Federal Trade Commission. “They are not perfect and right now, you have to be a fairly motivated consumer to follow through.”
A good place to start is by visiting the area of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s website that has instructions on how to opt out
of some online ads with just a few mouse clicks. There you’ll find the names of sites where consumers can limit dozens of marketing networks that may be keeping tabs on you. One especially helpful site: aboutads.info
, the online industry’s voluntary program for consumers.
Beware, though: Even if you opt out, the marketing companies can still track your viewing habits and you’ll still see ads. It’s just that the ads will be more generic.
The online marketing industry, which has been under fire for targeted ads, is now trying to make them more transparent and easier for you to stop. The Digital Advertising Alliance just created the “Your AdChoices” icon that its members (including Google, Yahoo, GM, American Express and Verizon) now place on ads they send based on a user’s previous Web activity. Click on the icon and you won’t see the ad.
Newland also recommends using your Internet browser (such as Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome or Microsoft Internet Explorer) to limit ad tracking. To do this, you’ll need to configure your privacy settings to block third-party cookies (those small pieces of text placed in your browser to help sites remember when you visit and return to their site).
Since each browser is different, each has its own privacy setting rules. But the aboutads.info site has useful tips on how to alter your settings with the major browsers.
Newland has one more suggestion: If you use Chrome, Internet Explorer or Firefox when you visit a social network like Facebook or Twitter, turn on the browser’s privacy mode (it’s called “incognito” by Chrome, “inprivate browsing” by Internet Explorer, and “private browsing” by Firefox). Once you do this, a window will open, allowing you to “silo” your visits to these social networks, making it more difficult for them to track which other sites you visit.
Since opting out of ads is difficult, the Federal Trade Commission and a host of consumer groups are pushing for a do-not-track system, similar to the do-not-call list that has curbed telemarketing calls.
The commission has yet to decide whether to ask Congress to mandate such a system or let the industry run one voluntarily.
By Caroline Mayer
Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer
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