Help, Internet ads are stalking me!

The same Web ads are following me from site to site, but they're neither interesting nor effective. Is this really the future of Internet advertising?

For the last few years I have suspected that something or someone is following me around the InterWebs. Now, finally, I have proof.

Surfing the Net on my Samsung Galaxy tablet recently, I noticed something peculiar. No matter what site I visited, I was seeing the same exact advertisement from a company that sells iPods which have been modified to be waterproof.

ad stalking - underwater audio.png

The reason? Last week I had visited this Web site and sent an email to the owner, asking for a review unit for a gift guide I am co-authoring for a large consumer magazine. Personally, I don’t give a damn about listening to music when I swim, but my wife (and co-author) does, and I was requesting it on her behalf.

I never got an answer to that email. I never went back to that site. They just blew their chance for national coverage. But their ads now won’t leave me alone, even though I have no flippin’ interest in that product.

This is targeted advertising in action.

On my desktop I don’t have this problem, or at least not as much of one. Why? Because I opted out of online targeting via the Network Advertising Initiative’s Opt Out cookie, and I added the Keep My Opt Outs extension to the Chrome browser, so even if my cookies are deleted my privacy preferences are retained. I also use tools like Abine’s Do Not Track Plus, and as an added measure, my copy of Norton Online Security is set to detect and delete tracking cookies.

So what happens when I visit those same sites from my desktop? I see a different generic ad – lately it’s one for NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics, despite the fact the Olympics are now over. On my tablet, though, none of those things are at play. I am fresh meat to the Internet advertising industry.

It was a Google ad, so I tapped the AdChoices triangle in the corner to get more information, which led me to my Google Ad Preferences page. There I got to see which ad categories Google had placed me in, based on my Web history:

google ad categories 600p.png

According to Google I am interested in entertainment, politics, food, humor, and technology. All of that is pretty spot on. On the other hand, at least half of these categories have something to do with gaming, and that isn’t even close to accurate. I game about as much as I swim, and about as well – which is to say, I barely avoid drowning. My teenage son, on the other hand, is a different story. He’d Xbox 24/7 if we let him. Until I added a passcode to lock down the screen, he’d grab my tablet and start downloading games to it the moment he and it were out of my sight. Thus, Google’s assumption that I am a gaming fiend.

The strange thing is that I don’t see many gaming ads on my tablet. My guess is that other demographic factors – most notably my (ahem) advanced age – make me a poor candidate for gaming ads. Still, I draw a couple of larger conclusions from this:

1. The ads that the ad industry thinks would be more “interesting” to me aren’t in fact interesting to me, in part because they’re a little confused about who “I” am.

2. The interest categories Google has placed me in are at best 50 percent off base, for the same reason.

And yet, this is what the $30 billion Internet advertising industry is betting its future on. What’s wrong with this picture?

These are pretty benign examples. But it’s just as possible for Web targeting to make the wrong guesses in ways that are detrimental to me. To take a rather broad example, a Web tracker could determine I was big fan of fried food, for example, because someone else used my browser to order the chicken wings dipped in lard sauce from I could then start seeing ads for Lipitor or Weight Watchers when I surfed to other sites. Worse, some data miner could decide this puts me in a high risk group for heart disease, and sell that information to my insurance company, which could impact my health coverage. 

Is this happening today? Not as far as I know. Could it? Sure. Because there are no laws in this universe. There’s nothing whatsoever to stop a company from collecting and selling this information save for the fact that people like me would complain about it. (Google explicitly states that it does not collect health or medical info, but it’s just one out of the hundreds of companies that deploy tracking cookies. )

This is the real problem with online tracking. There are no rules besides the ones the companies make for themselves. And even when they get it wrong – especially when they get it wrong – that data could hurt you.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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