Ads Online - Why Are They Following You Around The Web?

ads following me online
Credit: Stefanie Grewel

If you've spent more than a few minutes online, you've most likely run into some kind of advertisement. Ads are everywhere we go online - visit Google to search for something, and you'll see ads at the top of your search results. Go to your favorite website, and chances are you'll see at least a few ads there as well. Watch a video - yes, you'll most likely see a few ads before the content you looked for finally starts rolling.

You'll even see ads within your email client, your favorite social media platform, and on your phone or tablet when you are browsing the Web.

Sometimes these ads are useful - for example, ads that show up when you really would like to see them, meeting a particular need. However, most ads online show up seemingly without your permission, crowding out content and taking up valuable real estate within your Web browser - not to mention potentially slowing down how fast your computer is running. 

Ads are everywhere online - why?

First of all, it's important to understand that most ads exist online simply to keep the lights on; in other words, if you're visiting a website, and you see an ad, that ad is generating revenue for the website it is appearing on, which in turn pays costs of hosting the site online, paying the staff who write the content, and any other associated costs with running that particular website.

Even though these ads are helping to make it possible for the sites you visit to stay in business, that's not to say that ads are welcome. A wide variety of studies show that people find online ads intrusive, annoying, and would rather turn them off all together; and a recent survey showed without a doubt that most people using the Web do not appreciate ads in their websites, blogs, video sites, or social networks.

These unsolicited, even somewhat aggressive (and occasionally offensive) ads are unwanted interruptions. However, as people have grown used to ads online, advertisers have become increasingly more creative with their marketing tactics, creating something called "behavioral retargeting". If you've ever wondered how the ad you're seeing on one site is aware of the shoes you just purchased at another site, you'll want to keep reading. 

How do ads follow me around the Web?  

Here's a scenario: you just searched for something in Google, took a few minutes to browse your search results, and then decided to visit Facebook. Lo and behold, within just a few seconds, you see ads for the item you just searched for in Google showing up in your Facebook feed! How is this possible - is someone following you, logging your searches, and then retargeting you on a completely different website? 

To put it simply, yes. Here's a brief overview of how this works:

  • You visit a website to purchase a pair of gloves. The ones you've chosen are a good price, but you think you might be able to get a better deal somewhere else. 
  • You leave the gloves in the sites's shopping cart, and visit another site. 
  • As soon as you arrive on the site's home page, an ad - featuring the gloves you just looked at - shows up on the side of the page. You've just been retargeted!

    Behavioral retargeting, also known as ad remarketing, is a very clever process by which advertisers keep track of their customer's browsing habits, and then use these to lure users back to their sites after they've left. How does this work? Basically, the website implements a bit of code (pixel) within their site, which in turn gives a tracking code to new and returning visitors. This small piece of tracking code - also known as a "cookie" - gives the website the ability to track users' browsing habits, figure out what they are looking at, and then follow them to another site, where the ad showing what you just looked at will show up. The ad not only displays what you were just looking at, but it could also offer a discount. Once you click on the ad, you're instantly returned to the site, where you can buy your item (now at a lower price). 

    How can I get rid of ads following me online? Is it possible? 

    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 if the ads have zero insight into your personal identity (and they don't). It's one thing to see ads for something on sites you don't have any personal information on, but what about sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, or even Google, where users have given out phone numbers, personal addresses, and other information that could be harmful in the wrong hands? 

    If you're concerned about privacy online, and would like to stop websites from being able to retarget you, there are a couple of simple ways to accomplish this. 

    Get an ad blocker: You can prevent ads from even showing up on the websites you visit by using an ad blocker; simple software applications that block websites from sending ads to you. Every Web browser has an ad block extension available; one of the best ones is AdBlock, which has free versions compatible with all major Web browsers. 

    Go incognito: Most Web browsers give you an "incognito", or private, browsing window, that will not store any cookies while you're online. Here's how to do it:

    • Internet Explorer or Firefox: press Ctrl+Shift+P from within the browser to open a private session
    • Google Chrome: press Ctrl+Shift+N from within the browser to open a private session (you can also clear your Google search history). 

    • Safari: press Command+Shift+N from within the browser to open a private session.

    Turn off cookies: You can set your Web browser to not accept cookies; all major Web browsers have this available in the Settings menus. Note that this option means that all websites where you have an account (and can easily sign in) will not be so easy to log in anymore. You can also simply reset your cookies every few days by visiting your browser settings and clearing your cache if you want a less permanent option.

    Opt out of ads in Google: You can choose to opt out of seeing ads in Google whenever you use it. This includes seeing personalized ads when you're signed in to your Google account, but also includes when you're signed out of Google using Google to search the Web and browsing apps and or sites that partner with Google to show their ads. In order to opt out, you'll need to visit Ads Settings, and turn off ads personalization. This will work across all devices that are signed into the Google account you're turning this off for. Note: this will only turn off ads in the specific scenarios laid out here; this will not prevent you from seeing ads all together, disable other companies' personalized ads, or keep you opted out once you clear your cookies and try to log back in. However, this is a good choice to "clean up" what you see in Google, especially in search results. 

    What about pop-up ads? How do you get rid of those? 

    If you've ever had weird pop-up windows that just won't go away, hijacked browser settings, internet preferences inexplicably changed, or a very slow web search experience, than you've most likely been the victim of spyware, adware, or malware. All three of these terms mean pretty much the same thing: a program that monitors your actions, generates unwanted ads, and is installed on your computer without your explicit permission or knowledge.

    Beyond targeted and/or personalized ads like we've talked about in this article, if you're consistently seeing annoying pop-up ads (smaller browser windows that "pop up" in the middle of your screen) or even more annoying, browser redirects (you visit a site, but your browser is instantly directed to another site without your permission), then you most likely have bigger problems then simple ad personalization. Most likely, the issue is a virus or malware on your system, and your computer is infected. 

    Most often, these malicious programs are installed within another program; for example, say you downloaded a seemingly innocent PDF editing program, and unbeknownst to you, this annoying adware was bundled within it. You'll know you have been infected if you start seeing random ad banners, URLs appearing where they shouldn't be, pop-up ads full of false advertising, or other undesirable side affects. 

    If you are not careful, spyware, adware, and malware can take over your system, causing it to slow down and even crash. These annoying programs are not only irritating, but they can also cause real problems for your computer. There are a few steps you can take to make these problems go away (and make sure they don't come back!).  Here are a few programs that you can download for free from the Web that will remove spyware and adware from your system. 

    Free Adware removers

    • Adaware cleans your computer of adware and spyware, and is updated frequently. 
    • MalwareBytes detects adware and malware, gets rid of it, and then runs quietly in the background to monitor any further intrusions. 
    • AVGFree anti-virus and anti-malware/adware software; available across unlimited devices. 

    Getting rid of ads is the first step towards more privacy online

    If you've read this far, then you're genuinely interested in learning how to keep yourself more private and secure online. There are many ways to go about this - some of which we've talked about in this article. Read the following articles for even more common sense tips:

    • Ten Ways To Keep Your Search History Private: Most of us have no need to hide our search history, but there's no harm in more cautious Web surfing. Here are a few ways you can keep your searching history private.
    • Anonymous Surfing 101: Are you concerned about privacy on the Web? Then anonymous surfing, the ability to surf the Web without being tracked, is for you. Here are some frequently asked questions about anonymous Web surfing.

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