If you’re worried about how oddly specific the ads you see online are getting, read on. We’ll explain what ad personalization is and how you’re being targeted every time you use your smartphone or computer.
Advertisers Know Who You Are
Tell us whether this sounds familiar: You’ve been thinking about buying something—say, a pair of jeans—for a while now. You do a little bit of research on lists of good jean brands (like visiting some posts about jeans on social media) and look for a store that sells jeans in your area. Suddenly, every ad that you see on the internet for the next few days is related to jeans. How are they doing that?
Companies use various systems of ad personalization, where they collect as much data on you as possible and then use it to serve relevant ads to you. On the one hand, this process can help you discover new and interesting products. However, many people are becoming increasingly concerned that these ads are becoming too relevant, almost to the point of being creepy.
How Data Is Collected
The two biggest ad providers, Google and Facebook, have a massive amount of data on you.
Because of Google’s presence in so many parts of an average user’s life, from web searches to video consumption on YouTube, it has many ways of collecting your information. Even things like which apps you install on Android and which locations you visit according to Google Maps can be collected and, depending on company policy, could be used to personalize your ads. Many websites also participate in a service called AdSense, which allows them to serve more relevant ads to visitors and provide information to Google in the process.
Similarly, Facebook collects all of the information you generate when using their social media apps, including Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. These apps use your liked pages, liked posts, recent searches, and personal information to create your ad profile. Many websites also have a “Facebook Pixel,” which allows Facebook to monitor your activity on those sites. These pixels are installed so that websites can then advertise to you on social media when you’ve recently visited their website.
How You’re Targeted
Advertisers usually have plentiful options when it comes to selecting an audience to advertise to.
Facebook puts you into “cohorts” based on your interests and demographic characteristics, which advertisers then use to narrow down their audience. These interests can include certain sports, celebrities, types of food, and genres of music. You can also be targeted based on location, age, level of education, gender, and relationship status. Other characteristics can also be based on your behavior, such as whether you travel a lot, how often you post, or whether you’ve interacted with other ads recently.
Google uses a similar policy on AdSense. Ads are targeted based on demographics, viewing history, and the kinds of websites that you frequently visited. Ads are also often based on the current website that you’re on.
Another way that Google advertises to you, which is similar to websites like Amazon, is through Google AdWords. Often, when you search for something on Google Search, the first one or two results will be paid ads. These ads are set to activate if you’re part of a particular demographic and when a specific keyword is typed.
While highly personalized ads can be a boon for advertisers and small businesses, many people are uncomfortable with the idea that massive corporations know everything about them. Depending on your personal preference, you might want to reduce personalization in your ads or opt out of personalized ads entirely.
A growing concern is whether companies snoop into your private conversations. Users of the Facebook-owned WhatsApp have grown increasingly suspicious of the company’s loose treatment of privacy. Some people have also reported receiving ads related to conversations that they’ve had in person or over the phone, leading many to believe that apps are using your microphone to spy on you—but advertisers have other ways of targeting you.
As users have become more wary of ad personalization, device makers have responded. Apple’s recently released iOS 14 has automatically disabled data collection and ad personalization by default, forcing Facebook, Google, and other companies to provide an opt-in to personalized ads. Following Apple’s lead, Google has also announced plans to change ad targeting in future iterations of Android.
In the meantime, if you’d like to opt out of ad personalization on Google, check out our guide.
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