Why Online Ads Follow You Around the Web

And what you can do to make them stop

online advertising on a laptop

Stefanie Grewel/Getty Images

Online ads can be found in every corner of web because that's how many companies make money. But, from your perspective, it might seem weird, annoying, or downright creepy, especially when the same ad seems to "follow" you around. For example, you might leave the Nike website only to open an article on a random business site and see an ad about the shoes you were just looking at.

These ads can be useful if you want to be reminded of products you're considering buying. But let's face it, most of the time you don't need that reminder. Not only do the ads crowd out content you do want to see, but they also make web pages load more slowly.

Several ads illustrated on web pages

Most online ads exist to generate website revenue that pays for web hosting, compensation for the writers and developers, and other expenses. These ads are making it possible for the sites you visit to stay in business but that doesn't mean they're welcome. A wide variety of studies show that people find online ads intrusive and annoying and that they would rather turn them off altogether.

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 your Ad Settings 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 of them 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.