What Is Ad Tracking? How to Limit Ad Tracking in Browsers
If you’ve ever seen a strangely specific advertisement when browsing online, you’ve experienced ad tracking. With ad tracking, advertisers can gather information about you and your preferences to tailor ads specifically to each user. Although it helps companies sell their products and services, it can be somewhat controversial to consumers. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of companies tracking your activity, learn how to limit ad tracking in your browser by improving your browser privacy.
What is ad tracking?
Ad tracking is the process of gathering information about users based on the performance of online advertisement campaigns. Marketers assess how well an ad campaign does – and which users click on or interact with them – to determine information about those users. It tells them what their demographic is, how to best reach their intended audience, and other interests or habits that their audience might have.
Essentially, ad tracking monitors your online activity across the web to inform marketers. It gathers data such as your location, family status, profession, and age. As a result, the advertisements you see are tailored to you.
Say, for example, you search for a tennis racket on an online retailer’s site. As you browse the web, you may begin to notice that online ads you receive on unrelated websites are for tennis shoes, tennis balls, and other gear. This is a result of ad tracking; your ad experience has been customized to you based on interests you’ve expressed, though inadvertently, to advertisers.
How to avoid ad tracking on your browser
Browser privacy is the best way to avoid ad trackers. Some browsers are better than others regarding privacy and ad tracking; the same goes for websites. Ad tracking is difficult to stop entirely, but there are many ways to get ahead of the process and prevent interacting with targeted advertisements.
Use Incognito Mode
Incognito Mode is a great first step towards protecting your Internet traffic privacy. All browsers have an Incognito Mode, though they may go by different names. Incognito Mode is a private browsing mode that doesn’t record your search history.
Cookies are small text files that correspond between your computer and websites you visit. Disabling cookies in your browser nearly eliminates advertisement tracking, as most advertisers rely on cookies to gather advertising data. However, keep in mind that cookies monitor everything; if you disable them, you won’t be able to save passwords or items in your cart on websites. If you don’t want to disable cookies entirely, clearing cookies regularly is another option.
Use a privacy-focused browser
Depending on the browser you use, you might not even have to worry about ad tracking. Browsers like Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome track you extensively. However, private browsers like Brave and Tor don’t.
These browsers don’t record your search history, monitor your activity, or allow tracking via cookies. If you’re looking for a way to disable ad tracking and aren’t partial to the browser you currently use, consider switching over.
Install AdBlock or another ad blocker
Installing an ad blocker, like AdBlock, remove advertisements from websites that you visit online. A comprehensive ad blocker will block pop-up ads, banner ads, and other ads that take up significant space on your page. Unlike the other solutions, an ad blocker stops ads entirely. While it may not completely stop ad tracking, as it doesn’t block cookies or other tracking methods, you won’t see these ads displayed in your browser.
How to turn off ad tracking on iPhone or Android
If you regularly use your phone to browse the Internet, you likely want to eliminate ad tracking on your phone, too. To limit ad tracking on iPhone, you can block ad tracking in your phone’s settings or download a separate, private browser.
Turn off ad tracking in Settings
You can limit ad tracking in the settings of your phone whether it’s an iPhone or an Android. To turn off ad tracking on iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy and Security > Apple Advertising and turn Personalized Ads off. To learn how to stop ad tracking on Android, go to Settings > Privacy > Ads > Delete Advertising ID. This clears your advertising data and prevents apps from using it in the future.
Download a private browser
Instead of using Google or Safari, you can download a private browser onto your phone to use instead. Private browsers, like Mozilla’s Firefox Focus, don’t monitor ad activity like other browsers. You can also download Brave or Tor’s app browser Onion Browser on your phone. Using these browsers will improve your online privacy and keep advertisers from tracking your search data.
Types of ad tracking
There are many methods that advertisers can use when tracking your information. Four of the most common tracking tools are tracking URLs, tracking pixels, web beacons, and cookies.
Tracking URLs are unique URL codes that can monitor traffic to or from a website and glean information about users from that source. These special URLs are popular for marketing uses, to see how effective certain ways of marketing and selling are. For example, when a social media influences a given sponsored product to promote, they will give their followers a "referral link,” which is a tracking URL, to click to get the product themselves.
This allows the company to monitor the traffic brought to the website by that specific influencer. In the same sense, for ad tracking, these tracking URLs allow for advertisers to track your online activity. As they use this data, you see targeted advertisements.
Tracking pixels are similar to tracking URLs in that they are website-based and gather information mainly for marketing. A tracking pixel is a tiny pixel that contains code designed to gather information about things like a website’s traffic. The tracking pixel goes as a graphic on a given website, but its small size makes it unnoticeable.
Tracking pixels gather information about users as they are on the website, such as what device they’re on, what ads they click on, which pages they view, and more. When the tracking pixels track preference information, advertisers use it for marketing.
Web beacons, like tracking pixels, are small objects embedded into a webpage or email. They are commonly formatted as 1x1 GIFs, since the format is universally recognized on web browsers; the small size allows almost all connections to load it. When web beacons are placed on a browser, the browser requests to download the beacon since it's technically an image. Along with the request, the server logs your IP address, the date and time of access, and more.
Cookies communicate between your computer and the websites you visit. This is the most popular form of advertisement tracking. Cookies store data such as your activity on a particular site, the information you’ve given out like email addresses or credit card numbers, your previous searches and shopping history, and more.
Is ad tracking illegal?
Though targeted ads feel like an invasion of privacy, ad tracking is not illegal. Unfortunately for users, ad tracking is also not well-regulated across the board; most companies set their own rules for what data they collect, how they collect it, and what they do with it. Some government agencies are pushing for greater regulation and restrictions to improve users’ privacy and stop or limit ad tracking, but at this point, ad tracking is completely legal.
Frequently asked questions
Why is ad tracking bad?
Ad tracking is bad because it collects information about users without their full knowledge or explicit consent. Ad tracking makes many users feel like they’re being watched, which is uncomfortable.
Should I turn off ad tracking?
If you don’t want to be monitored by advertising companies and have your data collected, then yes, you should turn off advertisement tracking. You won’t see any more ads that are based off of your previous shopping activity or search history. You can do it on your device, through your browser, or with an ad blocker.
What is ad tracking on iPhone?
Ad tracking on iPhone is the collection of iPhone user data that’s incorporated by advertisers into marketing plans. Apps on iPhones contain a lot of data, and much of it is recorded by advertisers if permissions aren’t revoked by the user. iPhone users can turn off ad tracking on iPhone in Settings > Privacy and Security.
How do I stop websites from tracking me?
If you want to stop ads from tracking you, your best option is to turn off cookies. This will prevent websites from collecting data about you as you browse. Some cookies are necessary for function, and, therefore, cannot be turned off.
However, others are nonessential and only used for tracking. Disable cookies in your browser or reject them on websites that you don’t want to track you.