Have you ever wondered how websites know what you're interested in buying? For example your browsing the internet looking for a new iPhone. The next minute you notice that there is a bunch of advertising recommending Apple iPhone or Samsungs Galaxy S4. Perhaps an advert pops up that is aimed directly at you. How does that web-page know you're looking for a new Smart-phone?
Something very creepy is going on.
The invisible mechanism that makes this phenomenon possible has nothing to do with psychic powers or telepathy but uses the internets favourite non-malicious villain the humble COOKIE.
"A cookie, also known as an HTTP cookie, web cookie, or browser cookie, is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored in a user's web browser while the user is browsing that website. Every time the user loads the website, the browser sends the cookie back to the server to notify the website of the user's previous activity. Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items in a shopping cart) or to record the user's browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in, or recording which pages were visited by the user as far back as months or years ago)"
Wikipedia Website - Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTTP_cookie
HOW ONLINE ADVERTISING WORKS:
There are two types of advertisements we commonly see online. Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Advertising Space sometimes known as Displayed Advertising
SEM advertisements are primary based on the Keywords typed into a Search Engine. This business practice is dominated by Google's Adwords service.
SEM is deemed to be an effective advertising delivery tool because it responds directly to the searcher's needs. For example when you Google "iPhone", there is a good chance that you want to buy a protective case or other accessories therefore advertisements to these paid adword would likely be displayed.
See example below:
The screenshot above illustrates my SEM results when I type the word "iPhone" into my Google Search Engine. These Adwords are paid Advertising but Google Adword Users. In other words they are businesses whom are trying to get you to go to their website to make your next purchase. Google allows Adwords to be "Ads Related to the iPhone", "Sponsored" or "Ads" as the screenshot illustrates.
Advertising Space or Displayed Advertising includes anything else that you see outside of Google, Bing or Yahoo. These adverts can range anything from JPEG or PNG images to animated GIFs or Flash Animations. Other Advertising includes banner ads, pop-ups and those annoying interstitials that prevent you from going to the next page until you have viewed their advertisement.
See an example below:
The goal of Displayed Advertising is to get clicks.
So how does Displayed Advertising know what I'm looking for?
Your inputed data is analysed, the content of the page is then used to generate a profile of its audience. From these results the program selects the most relevant ads to display. This is a widely used technique and does not usually raise any privacy concerns due to its associated advertising to the related content.
However there is a more controversial approach known as behavioural targeting. This approach tries to select advertising that is tailored to your personal interests. It looks at the site you're visiting at that point of time, but also factors in information about the things you've previously browsed on other websites. This method is trying to predict exactly what you will search for next. It's also trying to tempt you into making that final purchase.
FIRST AND THIRD PARTY COOKIES:
FIRST PARTY COOKIES
"is any data that’s gathered through a direct relationship. Both advertisers and publishers can have their own first-party data from the relationships they have with readers and customers, respectively. In general, when people talk about first-party data, they’re referring to advertisers’ customer data, not publishers’ reader data. It’s worth noting that forgetting about publisher first-party data is a major oversight."
THIRD PARTY COOKIES
Isocket Blog - Source: http://blog.isocket.com/2013/09/the-difference-between-first-and-third-party-data/
Most of us know about COOKIES. Small packets of DATA that can be deposited onto your PC or MAC by the websites you visit. COOKIES are not necessarily harmful, in fact they're one of the great enabling technologies on the internet. Without COOKIES it would not be possible to store session information which remembers your site preferences or shopping cart contents. COOKIES come in 2 flavours. First Party and Third Party as discussed in the paragraphs above. In summary, first party cookies are created and accessed by the site you're visiting. Third party cookies are created by a website other than the one you're visiting. Cookies such as these are more insidious because they can be accessed by advertising agencies.
HOW DO 3RD PARTY COOKIES TRACK YOUR MOVEMENTS?
"also called web bugs and clear GIFs are used in combination with cookies to help people running websites to understand the behaviour of their customers. A web beacon is typically a transparent graphic image (usually 1 pixel x 1 pixel) that is placed on a site or in an email."
All About Cookies Website - Source: http://www.allaboutcookies.org/web-beacons/
COOKIES are not the only method of tracking you online. Some websites use Web Beacons. When you load a web-page with a Web Beacon your PC or MAC sends a request to the remote server and your IP address is recorded. Web Beacons are not highly visible and usually come in the form of a transparent 1x1 pixel GIF.
For more information about Web Beacons, please visit http://www.allaboutcookies.org/web-beacons/
HOW DO YOU STOP AUTOMATED ADVERTISING?
Thankfully there are ways to stop automated advertising in your web browser. You could turn off COOKIES in your web browser but this could effect legitimate websites and online applications from running correctly. It could also stop some everyday functions on Twitter or Facebook from working. Other big companies such as Amazon, Ebay, Gumtree, Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc use legitimate COOKIES on their domains.
Don't despair you do have some options. Google, Yahoo and Bing allow you to opt out of search engine marketing. Here are some links that may be useful to you:
- Google: http://tinyurl.com/c573qhy
- Yahoo: http://tinyurl.com/d6jdory
- Microsoft: http://tinyurl.com/ckvzwbb
Social networks are fast becoming a marketing research tool. Facebook collects enormous amounts of data about you and your friends. This information can and is passed onto businesses to further help their marketing strategies to target their audience more effectively. You can minimise your exposure by limiting your likes on your Facebook account. Take time to study your privacy settings as they change on a regular basis.