June 21, 2011, 8:42 PM — Have you ever been followed around the Web for months by ads for a product that you considered (but decided against) buying from an online retailer? Have you seen ads on Facebook offering some product that a marketer thinks a person like you should need and want?
Many people in the Web advertising community seem to believe that consumers will appreciate this kind of personalized targeting, because we'll only have to look at ads for stuff we're interested in. For many of us, though, that isn't the case at all.
Behind the Web that's visible to us lies a massive and complex advertising machine that wraps virtually every kind of content we see--from mobile games to Web searches to viral videos--in ads. Some of the older machinery may be familiar to you, but some of the new stuff still lurks in the shadows, evidenced only by its product. In this article we'll look in rough outline at some of these advertising systems and how they work, starting with older technology and ending with newly minted stuff that's just coming into use today."
Retargeting (aka Remarketing)
Retargeting/remarketing involves having an advertiser drop a cookie into the consumer's browser that enables the advertiser to follow that person around and show them targeted ads for the product/retailer after they leave the original site. This practice is far from new--it's been going on for about a decade. Many big-name retailers have adopted the practice. Overstock.com may be the most blatant: Click a product at that site, and you might very well see ads for it at other sites for weeks after your Overstock visit. Smaller Web vendors such Tom's Shoes, Blue Nile, Timbuk2 are using the technique, too. Whereas Overstock may follow you around with ads for products that you browsed or left in your shopping cart, smaller retailers just follow you around with a general ad for their brand.
Advertisers (whether businesses or advertisers representing businesses) buy leads from websites based on how groups of consumers behaved at the site. The advertiser can "cookie" the consumer's browser at different places on the site, determining how qualified a sales prospect the consumer might be. For example, Shopper A who merely lands on the homepage of a site (and goes no further) gets one kind of cookie; but Shopper B who lands on the homepage, browses products, puts something in a "shopping cart" and then proceeds to "checkout," receives a different cookie. Shopper B is more valuable to the marketer than Shopper A, because B exhibited browsing behavior that suggests real product interest and a greater likelihood of actually buying something.