I’ve been meaning to put this post together for quite some time, but a number of different things have stopped me, including the fact that I’m not the world’s biggest expert by any means.
But still, I have stuff to say about this, so I’m going to say it.
If you find issue with anything in this post, or want to correct or elaborate on anything I've put here, please do so in the comments and I will update the post. Thanks in advance for your input!
First, I’m going to talk about what targeted advertising entails. Second, I’m going to talk about the methods of targeted advertising. Third, I’m going to talk about things you could do about it if you choose to.
There are a lot of class action lawsuits coming up around tracking and targeting, specifically about using information about what you look at on one site to target ads on other sites. For example, when I was buying a lot of goth Lolita dresses, I’d get Milanoo ads showing me the absolute cutest dresses ever, not just on Milanoo, but on Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and most of the news sites, magazine sites, and blogs I frequent.
What is tracking?
Another form that tracking takes is ad-related tracking and then serving ads based on where you’ve been around the Internet. You might be surprised to know that anywhere you see the “Like” button from Facebook and the “Tweet” button from Twitter that your action on that site is probably being tracked (provided that you didn’t sign out when you left the sites). Every site that you visit with one of those buttons sends information back to your record on Facebook’s and Twitter’s servers about your interests. Google stores your search and browsing history, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if they use the Google+ button to track you as well. There’s a Chrome plugin you can install called Privacy Fix that will block the Facebook Like button from appearing. I’ll talk about that later.
Targeted Advertising: your mileage may vary
The main thing that tracking is used for is, of course, profit. It’s easy to see how targeted advertising is far superior to non-targeted advertising: if you put products in front of people who have already expressed interest in those products, it’s pretty likely that you’re going to convince people to cave in and buy that stuff. Similarly, if you put products in front of people who share common interests with other people, it’s likely that the targeted people will also share their interest in certain products.
For example, I’m listed as engaged to my fiancée on Facebook. He’s a male. As a result, I’m getting a lot of ads for wedding photography and wedding locations… but I’m also getting ads for children’s clothing. Even though I haven’t stated that I’m expecting a kid anywhere on my profile, my demographics (engaged, heterosexual female, 37) make it pretty likely that I’ll be enjoying a visit from the stork soon. Of course, having kids is furthest from my mind, but the majority of people in my demographic are, so I get targeted.
When I was play engaged to my friend Laura, I didn’t get baby ads. I guess lesbians aren’t a good target for baby stuff.
Facebook doesn’t want to waste targeted advertising on anyone, so they give you the option of controlling what kind of ads you see. You can thumbs up or thumbs down ads on Facebook to refine the ads you see, enabling better targeting on you.
Why on earth would you want Facebook to better target you? Because ads that you’re interested in become content and not ads. Think about magazines… those are just big advertisements that you’ve self-targeted by buying. Not just the ads, but the clothes featured, the product reviews, the beauty advice… all of that is about putting products that you might be interested in at your fingertips.
The difference is, of course, that in a magazine, you would have to go seek out that adorable skirt from Sack’s, but on the Internet, you can click in and have it sent to you in minutes.**
There are some reasons I don’t like targeted ads:
- They’re very good at making me part with my money, because companies like Zappos can show me the boots I was drooling over across pretty much any site I go to.
- I have massive amounts of data about me living on some server and I don’t even know what is stored out there. I can only imagine that it’s everything. That’s a little creepy.
- Companies like Fab start sending me email all day long featuring products that I actually really do enjoy looking at, so I open them, which is a waste of time and a reinforcement of their somewhat spammy email policies.
- When the targeting is wrong (like with the babies), I feel like they think I’m a cheap and predictable piece of meat connected to a credit card.
There are some reasons I like targeted ads:
- They do feature products I’m actually interested in, so much so that I’ve actually started looking at ads again. The ads have become a kind of extra content.
- … um, that’s it, actually.
There are some reasons I’m neutral to targeted ads:
- Who really cares if someone has all this information on me and my habits? It’s not like I have anything truly to hide, and the advertising companies aren’t in any huge hurry to publish my habits, since then I’d know how much they know. And I’m kind of scared to know.
- I have to support the services that I use, either by subscription or by advertising. There’s no such thing as free anything. Facebook, Twitter, and Google all provide services that I actually need, so I accept advertising and tracking as the contract of exchange that I have with these companies. My habits are currency.
What kind of information is stored? Ah, this is where it gets amazing. Everything. Facebook recently did a deal with the companies who manage the data from buyer loyalty cards. So every time you buy pre-natal multi-vitamins or stretch mark cream at Ralph’s, Facebook knows you should get more baby ads. Or, at least, theoretically. I don’t know how integrated the systems are yet. But imagine the kind of information that could be gleaned by watching every post, every tag on a photo, every person whose post you comment on, every article you read (yes, even that one about Snookie running for president and about early warning signs of herpes)… I mean, it’s really something.
But as I said above, the companies doing this tracking have a very serious interest in not letting anyone know how much they know about you. If you found out how much data they had on you, it’s likely that you’d be creeped out in the least, outraged at the most.
Ok, but really, who the hell cares?
This is the question I struggle with all the time. Do I really care if corporations are amassing huge piles of information about me for the purposes of getting me to part with my money? Isn’t that more my problem than theirs?
It’s not all that simple.
I think my general philosophy on tracking is based on the idea that I’d rather know than not know. And once there’s a huge amount of information stored about you, well, it’s hard to undo that. What if the government suddenly decided to take a huge interest in the cross-section of population that reads Tom Robbins and wears rugged boots? I’d be in a mess of interest.
That’s not to say that ad companies hand over their information to the government, but since I don’t know whether they do or not, I assume they would.
It’s just a lot of trust to put into people who know all your secrets.
So what can you do?
As I mentioned, it’s impossible to know how much information is being stored about us and how complete a picture that the companies have about us. That’s why the methods of stopping tracking are inexact for the most part.
Opt out of tracking by putting another cookie on yourself:
- go to http://www.networkadvertising.org/choices/ and select all the checkboxes of the companies that are tracking you.
- Go to http://privacychoice.org/trackerblock and do more non-tracking things.
- Go to http://www.rubiconproject.com/privacy/consumer-online-profile-and-opt-out/ and check out what they’re tracking about you… I actually don’t find Rubicon that bad, since they tell you what they know (mine says “book club, oprah winfrey, book, club, challenge, community, meditation, magazine, everything, super, new earth, soul, earth, life, new way, programs, offer, blog, eckhart tolle, hour, reading, chapter, programming, true, presents, books, series, space, block, thank, video, present, episode, definition, radio, tolle, host, 21” because I spend a lot of time on oprah.com). Opt out if you want.
Go to Facebook’s brand page settings and like a bunch of stuff you don’t like: https://www.facebook.com/pages Unfortunately, this is the best way to “opt out” of Facebook targeting. It still won’t stop tracking you across third party sites and they’ll still base a lot of your targeting on your posts and your friends’ posts, but at least it’ll throw a significant wrench into their algorithm.
The bad side of liking stuff you don’t like is that all your friends think you’re a huge Land’s End and Ritz fan. And then they also get targeted based on the fact that you liked those things… which is probably for the best anyways.
Go to PrivacyFix: https://privacyfix.com/start and install that Chrome plugin.
Go to your Twitter account settings and uncheck the box that says “Tailor Twitter based on my recent website visits“: https://twitter.com/settings/account
Go to your Google account settings and see if they’re what you want https://www.google.com/dashboard/b/0/
I guess it’s worth noting here that I actually give Google almost unlimited information about me. Why? Oh, I don’t know. I have no justification at all, actually. Which leads to my most important point….
So why didn’t I lead with that? Well, y’all are my friends and I assume that the readership on this post is going to be so minute as to not make even a drop in the bucket of the revenue of any of these companies. It’s my gift. :)
If you want to take action about tracking, the President of Consumer Reports, Jim Guest, just sent my dad a note with a petition, which you can find here.
* Many years ago, pageviews used to be a pretty good indicator of impressions, but since HTML has come a long way in the last 10 years, it’s not necessary to reload the page to reload an ad. It’s possible to change the ads based on your actions, and not just the action of changing pages. For example, slideshows like those on Martha Stewart don’t refresh the whole page when you switch from one page to another, but rather just refresh the ads and the slide you’re looking at. This makes it a lot quicker to look at multiple slides, because you’re not waiting for the page to reload and you don’t have to scroll down to look at the slide.
This is a vast oversimplification of what is called “Usability.” Our job as Product Managers is to make your experience as enjoyable as possible while still meeting our business needs. We use metrics delivered through tracking suites like Omniture and Google Analytics to figure out where people are getting excited and clicking quickly through content or getting frustrated and clicking away. Among my favorite parts of Product Management is going through the analytics and measuring them against success metrics (like increased pageviews and pages-per-visit).
** This is a huge part of what a retail product manager does… they make the process of arriving at the product you have been targeted to the point of sale as seamless as possible, so you hardly have a chance to realize what you’re doing before you click “confirm” on that final order page. It sounds sinister, but it isn’t. You actually do want that adorable dress and you’ll be drooling at the door in 5 – 7 business days. Product managers just make that decision process much quicker.