Have you ever wondered how companies target their advertisements? It seems that groups are able to know exactly what you’re looking for when an ad pops up on your Facebook timeline or you see Google ads that are oddly specific. This process is referred to as ad tracking. Although it helps companies sell their products and services, it can be somewhat controversial to consumers.
What is ad tracking?
Ad tracking, in general, is the process of gathering information from users interacting with online ads. This gives marketers insight into what products are of peoples interest. It also tells them what demographics of overall people are interested in their products, and how to best reach their intended audience.
Essentially, the process tracks your online activity across the web. Then the advertisements you see are tailored specifically to you. Ad trackers can collect additional data, too—like where you live, your family status, your job, and more.
For example, if you’re checking out online retailers for tennis rackets, you may start to notice that your ads on other unrelated websites are for tennis balls, shoes, and similar gear. To ad tracking technology, their data collection makes you seem like an avid tennis fan. The information is particularly used to customize your ad experience and give you ads based on things you've recently seen.
Different kinds 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" (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 tracking of your online activity. It can then come back to you in the form of 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, it can be used to create advertisements.
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 are small text files that correspond between your computer and the websites you visit. This is the most popular form of ad tracking. Cookies store data such as your activity on a certain site, information you’ve given out (like email address or credit card numbers), your previous searches and shopping history, and more.
How to avoid ad tracking
Ad tracking can be difficult to stop entirely, but there are many ways to get ahead of the process and prevent interacting with and viewing targeted ads and ad campaigns.
On your browser
Use Incognito Mode on your browser to limit ad tracking and keep advertisers from monitoring your online habits. Cookies will be unable to gather your information in Incognito Mode. Using Incognito Mode is a great first step in protecting your internet traffic privacy.
Disable cookies in your browser or on your device. This is a drastic step, but one that will definitely help prevent ad tracking. Cookies monitor everything, which means that if you disable them, you’ll also be unable to save your passwords or cart history on websites. This will affect more than just your ads, so consider this option thoroughly. Clearing cookies on a regular basis is not the perfect answer, but it's an alternative to disabling cookies altogether.
Install AdBlock on your browsers to block ads from coming up during your searches. An Ad Blocker can help protect your privacy too, but does more in the way of blocking ads than it does ad tracking.
On your phone
Turn off ad tracking in Settings of your iPhone or Android device. For iPhone users, find it under Privacy in Settings. For Android users, go to Settings, then Google, and select Ads to turn off tracking. There are other items that should be changed in your smartphone as well to further protect yourself.
Download a private browser instead of using Google or Safari. Private browsers, like Mozilla’s Firefox Focus, do not track your activity for ads like normal browsers. This is essentially the equivalent of using Incognito Mode on a computer, but you won’t have to worry about switching back.
Some users actually enjoy targeted ads. However, there's a large number of Internet users particularly bothered by the idea of targeted advertisements and ad tracking. If you're concerned about the monitoring of online activity for marketing purposes, then make sure to follow these steps to keep ad tracking to a minimum on your devices.