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How targeted marketing works

It’s a peculiar phenomenon of the digital age: You are mildly interested in an online ad that shows up on one of your favorite web sites, so you click on the ad to find out more. You decide against buying anything, close out the ad, and think no more about it.

At least that was the plan until the exact same ad mysteriously appears on another of your favorite web sites. And then another…and another. In fact everywhere you go online, the ad goes with you. Whether it’s a new laptop, a vacation stay at a luxury resort, or a way to cut your mortgage rate, the ad you once showed an interest in is now following you around the Web like some crazed cyber-stalker.

Welcome to targeted marketing, the advertising industry’s best friend and perhaps the most obvious proof that the Internet is tracking everything we do.

Whenever we go online, we leave a trail. And it doesn’t have to be as obvious as filling out an online form or leaving an e-mail address. Clicking on an ad or a link, or even just visiting a web site adds to our online profile and helps advertisers and others decide what content we should be served.

How does it work? A web site or ad network knows who we are by storing a “cookie” on our computer. A cookie is a small text file, which assigns a unique identifier to our machine, so the web site recognizes us whenever we return or visit another site served by the same network.

Although they sound invasive, cookies are not necessarily bad things. As well as storing unique IDs, they can also store user preferences, making our web browsing and site visits more personalized and efficient. E-commerce sites can use cookies to track our shopping activity, keep tabs on what’s in our shopping carts, and match us up with goods and services that they think we will like.

However, the move to mobile computing using smartphones and devices like the iPad has dramatically changed the way companies are able to track our Web-based activity. Although most mobile browsers support cookies, there is far less search-based browsing on mobile devices and therefore less opportunity for unwanted profiling.

Instead, much of our mobile web activity is now via custom apps, which are “sandboxed” from the rest of the Web. Consequently, ads and other content are based more on the profile of the app than on the profile of the individual user.

Of course, there are other ways we can be targeted using mobile devices – think GPS tracking and location-based apps – but they are mostly under our own control, to be turned on and off as we see fit. And that’s what we want from our devices – the ability to choose where and when we are tracked.

That’s just one more reason to love my smartphone – it’s not just freeing me from my desktop, it’s also freeing me from all those creepy ads!

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