Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
Contextual advertising uses on-site clues and additional information to place ads that are likely to be useful to site visitors, or to you.
I feel like I'm being stalked. I see the same ad all over the place. The thing is that my wife doesn't; she sees normal ads on the same pages that I see this stalker ad. What's going on?
People get pretty wrapped up when it comes to advertising, particularly anything that uses the word "tracking." They feel - as you probably do - that someone is tracking them specifically.
Well ... yes and no.
Advertisers and advertising networks use as much information as possible to provide advertisements that are relevant to you and your needs. Sometimes, that might look like they're following you around a little.
I see the most common example right here on Ask Leo! I'll use that as a place to start.
Many web sites, including Ask Leo!, use Google AdSense to provide ads on the site, for which the site owners get paid.
Services, like AdSense, are called "contextual" advertising, because when asked to display an ad on a page, they'll look at what that page contains and then try to display ads that are relevant to the topic.
In other words, I don't choose what gets advertised - Google does.
On one hand, it's not always spot-on. On the other, Google's advertising service takes much more than just page content into account. The concept is pretty simple: provide advertisements that are as relevant to what you're doing as possible.
Of course, that means they're interested in what you're doing.
We talk often about "tracking cookies", which is one of many ways that advertising services determine "what you're doing".
For example, if you run around and visit a few web hosting service web sites, as I sometimes do, you may find that advertisements on completely unrelated sites are suddenly all about web hosting.
I can see that it might feel like they're stalking you.
What's happened, however, is that the advertising service has collected information about where you've been - typically, through ads that it placed on those sites as well - and uses that to infer, "This person is looking at a lot of web hosting sites. He must be looking for web hosting. Let's show him ads for web hosting."
I run into this all the time. I regularly visit my own hosting service's site, and for quite a while afterwards, almost every site that I visit that runs Google's AdSense shows me ads for that host.
Does that imply that they know what Leo Notenboom is doing, that I specifically am being watched?
Not at all. If it did, they'd know that I'm already a customer. All that it means is that a computer algorithm somewhere simply noticed, "This browser visited these sites, so let's feed it these ads."
Advertisers and advertising networks don't care about you as an individual; what they care about and watch are the actions of millions of people in order to understand trends. They care about what the most people are looking for and acting on.
As an individual, you just aren't that interesting.
As you can imagine, websites, advertising networks, and search engines like Google have a tremendous amount of information about what sites and topics are popular. They know how many people visit and even how long they stay. They know what words people search for and what kinds of ads that they act on.
Much of that information is made available to advertisers and some of it even to you and me.
For one example, the Google Adwords Keyword Tool and similar services show what words people are entering into search engines, how many advertisers are trying to place ads related to those words, and how many web sites provide content related to those words.
Advertisers can use this information to tailor their ads for the highest chance of success. They also use this to provide information to their advertising networks that indicate what, when, and how their ads should be displayed.
They're not saying "show Leo Notenboom these ads", but rather something more like "show these ads to browsers that have visited our website", because visiting their website could imply that the person browsing has an interest in their product.
They have no idea who Leo Notenboom is; or you, for that matter. And they don't care. What they care about is any data that implies that there might be interest in their product. They don't know who you are until you actually buy something.
You are just one among millions and millions of internet users. There's just no way for them to care about each and every person that might see their ads or every topic that you might discuss in an email message - that's simply too much information to process with almost no tangible benefit to them.
The fact that thousands of people like something is useful - the fact that you do is pretty meaningless. Even though the technology might use the fact that you visited a web site as one thing to factor in to what ads you might see next, you're no different than anyone else.
It could happen.
It's certainly possible that the tracking data used for advertising, or even other types of tracking information, could be used to track you as an individual.
My question to you is simply this: do you really think that you're so important or interesting that some random organization capable of this type of tracking would have some kind of interest in you personally?
If so, then nothing I've said here applies to you. Unless you take some serious and extreme steps to maintain your privacy, what you do online could be used to learn about you personally.
I just don't think that for the vast majority of us it is. If "they" are tracking you specifically, then I believe you are literally one in a million or more.
For the 999,999 of us that they really don't care about, it's not something that I worry about.
Certainly, if you've run afoul of the law in whatever country or jurisdiction might apply, then a number of doors open to law enforcement that could similarly compromise your privacy, and perhaps advertising-related information is one of them.
But for the average user, "tracking" in whatever form it might take isn't something that's worth a lot of time and effort to avoid.
Yes, sometimes they are after you.
Sometimes, the technology might even make it look like they're stalking you.
But they're not.
Most often, they're simply not wasting their time even thinking of you as an individual. You're just not that interesting.
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