Why Online Ads Follow You Around the Web

Businesses use cookies to show you ads for things you're interested in, but there are ways to stop this if you no longer want them

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Online advertising is a common occurrence on the internet, as it's how many businesses generate revenue. However, from the user's perspective, these ads can seem strange, irritating, or even unsettling, especially when the same advertisement appears to "follow" the user around. For example, you may visit the Nike website, then open an article on a different business website and see an ad for the shoes you just looked at.

While these ads can be helpful in reminding you of products you may be interested in purchasing, they often clutter up content you do want to see and can slow down web page loading times.

Online advertising is necessary to support websites and pay for expenses such as web hosting, compensation for writers and developers, and other costs. However, many people find online ads to be intrusive and annoying and prefer to turn them off. This is supported by various studies that show people's negative attitudes towards online advertising.

Why Do the Same Ads Appear Everywhere?

Blocks and arrows illustrating ad targeting

It's clear that most people using the web don't appreciate ads in their websites, blogs, video sites, or social networks. However, as people have grown used to online ads, advertisers have become increasingly creative with their marketing tactics, creating something called behavioral retargeting, also known as ad remarketing.

This strategy enables them to display ads elsewhere if a person looks at a product but doesn't buy it the first time, in hopes they will be reminded to complete the transaction. The basic idea is that the ad targets individuals that already showed an interest in the product. Instead of blasting a particular ad to random people, ad retargeting latches on to those that show interest, in hopes that they'll come back.

Companies that use behavioral retargeting techniques have an advantage over companies that don't. For example, if, while researching TVs, you land on a dozen websites but still haven't figured out what you want, the brand using ad remarketing might show you their TV once more later in the day, after you've stopped looking. Now you've seen this particular TV more than once, which might reinforce your attachment to it. The ad might even give you a coupon code to get a discount on the purchase.

How Do Ads Follow Me Around? 

dual screens with web page code

Here's a scenario: You just performed a search on Google, took a few minutes to sift through the results, and then decided to visit Facebook. Lo and behold, within just a few seconds, what you just searched for on Google is now displaying as an ad on your Facebook feed!

How is this possible? Is someone following you, logging your searches, and then retargeting you on a completely different website? 

Essentially, yes. But how exactly does this process work? Basically, the website where you're shopping implements a bit of code called a cookie, which enables the site to track your browsing habits, see what you're looking at, and follow you to another site, where the ad showing what you just looked at shows up.

How Can I Make Ads Stop Following Me?

Sure, it's nice to get a bargain on something you were going to buy anyway, but not everyone appreciates being followed around the web by ads, even though you're never personally identified. It's especially unnerving when you see these ads on sites where you store personal information, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google.

If you're concerned about online privacy and would like to stop websites from being able to retarget you, there are some simple ways to do it. 

  • Get an ad blocker: You can prevent ads from showing up on the websites you visit by using an ad blocker, which is a simple software application that blocks websites from sending ads to you. Every web browser has an ad block extension available, one of the best being AdBlock Plus
  • Go incognito: Most browsers have an incognito or private browsing mode that you can go into to prevent cookies from being stored while you use the web.
  • Turn off cookies: You can set your web browser to not accept cookies. All major web browsers have this option available in the settings, but remember that disabling cookies means disabling sites from keeping you logged in to email and social media accounts, as well as providing "memory" functions of what you've done on sites in the past. An alternative is to manually delete the browser cookies every few days.
  • Opt out of ads on Google: If you use Google, you have some control over muting ads. Opt out from the My Ad Center page. This process works across all devices that are signed in to the same Google account, but it will only disable personalized ads in specific scenarios. 

What About Pop-Up Ads?

Pop-up ads could be related to ad remarketing, but some could be the result of a computer issue. If you have pop-up windows that just won't go away, hijacked browser settings, internet preferences inexplicably changed, or a very slow web search experience, you may be the victim of spyware, adware, or malware. Most often, these malicious programs are installed within another program or downloaded file.

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