A few days back I purchased an external hard drive. Since then, all the websites I visit have started displaying me hard drive and storage media ads. It feels as if they know what I’ve been doing. Weird, eh? Not really.

Let’s take a step back and see how a website like ours generate revenue. Unlike television, you don’t pay a dime to read articles on your favorite websites, so how do they make money? There are handfuls of ways, but mostly it is advertising – running ads against the content.

Thing with ads is, they have a name of running the blood type “super annoying” in their veins. But things have changed, drastically. In late 1960s, advertisement had more wood, less arrows status. It was the time of non-customized ads. Back in the days, most consumers were confronted with ads that made very little sense to them, it failed to hold any appeal.

How much do you love it when your internet browser based on your browsing history predicts the address you want to go to? Same recipe is now implemented by advertisement industry. Profiling of each individual’s web pattern is now being conducted at the digital woods; your web history, things you like, places you visit, stuff you buy are being analyzed. While all these might look scary, but they aren’t going to use this data against you (hopefully), this is being done because they want to know the exact stuff you want to buy – throw ads that could make sense to you.

Deep clustered world of advertisements

Advertisement analysts have learned a very important lesson about human needs and psychology, and thus they are now aiming the bull’s eye, but is it all clean or does this too involve devilry acts?

There are many methodologies involved in such process, but two of the most effective and often used together ones are Search Engine Marketing, and the controversial Behavioral Targeting.

When you do a Google search, you see some advertisements. They are prime examples of search engine marketing. It is very powerful, because when you search for some product, it is very likely that you would eventually buy it. So the website owner or its administrator puts a java script powered widget on the website and it automatically fetches and renders advertisement from its ad network server.


This also involves the practice of something called Display Advertising. It is like when you go to a website and read an article about TV, smartphones and tablets, and they assume that you are interested in such theme. Thereby they cater you with relevant ads.
The second type of advertisement is a bit controversial. It keeps an eye on the sites you visit; based on your internet browsing history, it sketches a pattern. Centered on which it then tailors the advertisement you will be seeing. The notorious side of this coin, as some would see it, is invasion of your privacy. Just like you don’t want people to stalk you in real life, your digital privacy needs protection too.

The Girl Scout cookie you would rather not eat

So how do these advertisers retrieve your information? Every browser uses some text files called cookies. These cookies are small deposit that keep itself updated with your credentials and other session information whenever your visit a webpage. It is because of these that you don’t have to enter the same information repeated number of times, and fall into a recursive loop. For instance, if there were no cookies, you will be required to enter your username and password for every Facebook page, or profile you visit. Think how hard it would be to do online purchases.

Not all cookies are controversial, or so to speak illegitimate, though. There are two types of cookies. One is first party cookie – low impact, accesses and deals with a particular website. The other one is the third party cookie, which records your activity as long as you are moving in the radius locus of same advertiser. So it is like this: you go to a website, and suppose “Chitika” is its ad network, it creates a cookie for it. Now when you visit the other site, it first checks what ad network is powering it, if it is some other ad agency, it will create a new cookie. But if this website too is partners with “Chitika”, it will update and add more information to the existing cookie.

Web beacons

Cookies aren’t the only thing that you should be aware of, especially if you are an avid social media user. Say, you have logged into your Facebook profile, and you see some interesting element, say an image, or a video on your newsfeed, but for viewing that image, you are required to click on its link. That link will take you from your primary website (Facebook, in this case) to a third party server. This is another way of tracking one’s internet activity.

Internet bubble

Here is a fun trick, sign in to Google, and do a Google search. Now ask your friend to do the same. It is more than likely that both of you will get a slightly different search results. Eli Pariser, in his book “The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think” describes how our daily used services like Google, Facebook, Yahoo are tailoring our search results – showing what we would want to see. Aforementioned companies are also analyzing our web history and habit, and encompassing us within a fixed locus.

Personalization can lead you down a road to a kind of informational determinism  in which what you’ve clicked on in the past determines what you see next  –  a Web history you’re doomed to repeat. You can get stuck in a static, ever-narrowing version of yourself — an endless you-loop.

While this has its own benefits – as those algorithms will determine and filter the content according to your taste, and ultimately this is what you might have been looking for. Problem arises when you will never be able to know about the things outside your bubble.

[color-box color=”white”]Also Read: Would you Quit Using Google Because of the Filter Bubble?[/color-box]

Put a stop to tracking or have some faith. The choice is yours

This advertisement strategy – use of web tracking technologies, cookies, web beacons and filter bubbles isn’t restricted to just your laptop. Every device like your smartphone, tablet strengthens the potential of personalized display ads. Every device that you use to access the internet leaves behind a trail, a trail that upcoming technology might use to do something you may not want. But, the counter point is, restriction of such web-tracking technologies will cripple the economic liability of the internet. Take any popular blog for example (including yours truly). You’re not charged a dime to get some precious info right on your screen. That’s possible only because of advertising.

This targeted ad marketing has reshaped the entire advertising industry. And certainly, it has changed the way we consume culture. It is not about ads anymore, Yahoo recently started a new segment named “news for you” where they predict and provide you with the news based on your past activities on their website.

[color-box color=”white”]Also Read: [How to] Enable Do Not Track on any Browser[/color-box]

There are many extensions such as TrackerBot, Disconnect available for all the leading web browsers that can help you put a stop to such privacy invasion. Microsoft, in its newest browser Internet Explorer 10 has enabled ‘Do not track’ functionality as their default settings. Another simple way to stop all these privacy hassle is by not sharing authentic data with the internet. Remember, more information you share with the internet, more relevant their targeted ads will be.

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Manish is an Engineering graduate in Computer Science but spends more time in writing about technology. He has written for a number of Indian and international publications including BetaNews, BGR India, WinBeta, MakeTechEasier, MediaNama, and Digit magazine among others. When not writing, you would find him ranting about the state of digital journalism on Twitter.