A Primer to Changing Online Ad Preferences

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Q: I'm worried about privacy. I've blocked access to my personal information for social networking sites, so why do all of the ads I encounter online seem to be targeted toward me? What do they know and how can I stop this?

A: Bringing in about $13 billion in revenue every year, Google is one of the biggest players in the world of online advertising. Many of the ads you encounter on various sites across the Internet belong to the search giant's network. And they are watching you.

Google wants you to like the ads they show you because then you're more likely to click on them. To figure out your taste in advertisements, Google employs a little tracking device called a cookie that's linked to your browser. While the cookie doesn't hold any data that identifies you specifically, it does keep track of what websites you visit and for how long. It also monitors what operating system and browser you use and your geographic location.

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Google combines all that information with content analysis of the webpage you're viewing to serve up the ad they think is best for you.

Recognizing that you might be weary of sharing any information at all -- even if it doesn't include your name and/or darkest secrets -- Google has rolled out the Ads Preferences Manager. By visiting this page, you can modify your settings so that ads you encounter across the entire Google network match your interests, or you can choose to opt out of the program entirely. If you decide to opt out of the program then that cookie on your browser will stop collecting information, but you will still see just as many ads online. Now, though, those ads will be generated randomly.

Yahoo!, which also runs a major advertising network, offers a service that is similar to Google's, the Ad Interest Manager. AOL, another competitor, does too, with a button buried deep on the company's Advertising Privacy Policy. Between these three, you have most of your bases covered, but know that there are a number of smaller networks, many of which don't offer the ability to opt out.

For those who are willing to embrace targeted ads, a new start-up, Bynamite, will allow you to set all of your interests in one place. After downloading the plug-in, which works with either Firefox or Chrome web browsers, you can build a profile that is pushed out to most of the major ad networks so you don't have to find and visit each one individually. Using the same type of cookie, Bynamite doesn't collect any personal information and is anonymous in that your browsing history is not linked to a name or street address.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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