I'm Being Followed: How Google—and 104 Other Companies—Are Tracking Me on the Web

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Don't get too caught up in all of that, though. There are three basic categories: Essentially, there are people who help the buyers (on the left), people who help the sellers (on the right), and a whole lot of people who assist either side with more data or faster service or better measurement. Let's zoom in on three of them -- just from the As -- to give you an idea of the kinds of outfits we're talking about.

Let's look at three companies from our list of As. Adnetik is a standard targeting company that uses real-time bidding. They can offer targeted ads based on how users act (behavioral), who they are (demographic), where they live (geographic), and who they seem like online (lookalike), as well as something they call "social proximity." They also give advertisers the ability to choose the types of sites on which their ads will run based on "parameters like publisher brand equity, contextual relevance to the advertiser, brand safety, level of ad clutter and content quality."

It's worth noting how different this practice is from traditional advertising. The social contract between advertisers and publications used to be that publications gathered particular types of people into something called an audience, then advertisers purchased ads in that publication to reach that audience. There was an art to it, and some publications had cachet while others didn't. Online advertising upends all that: Now you can buy the audience without the publication. You want an Atlantic reader? Great! Some ad network can sell you someone who has been to The Atlantic but is now reading about hand lotion at KnowYourHandLotions.com. And they'll sell you that set of eyeballs for a fifth of the price. You can bid in real-time on a set of those eyeballs across millions of sites without ever talking to an advertising salesperson. (Of course, such a tradeoff has costs, which we'll see soon.)

Adnetik also offers a service called "retargeting" that another A-company, AdRoll, specializes in. Here's how it works. Let's say you're an online shoe merchant. Someone comes to your store but doesn't purchase anything. While they're there, you drop a cookie on them. Thereafter you can target ads to them, knowing that they're at least mildly interested. Even better, you can drop cookies on everyone who comes to look at shoes and then watch to see who comes back to buy. Those people become your training data, and soon you're only "retargeting" those people with a data profile that indicates that they're likely to purchase something from you eventually. It's slick, especially if people don't notice that the pairs of shoes they found the willpower not to purchase just happen to be showing up on their favorite gardening sites.

There are many powerful things you can do once you've got data on a user, so the big worries for online advertisers shift to the inventory itself.  Purchasing a page in a magazine is a process through which advertisers have significant control; but these types of online ads could conceivably run anywhere. After all, many ad networks need all the inventory they can get, so they sign up all kinds of content providers. And that's where our third company comes into play.

AdExpose, now a comScore company, watches where and how ads are run to determine if their purchasers got their money's worth. "Up to 80% of interactive ads are sold and resold through third parties," they put it on their website. "This daisychaining brings down the value of online ads and advertisers don't always know where their ads have run." To solve that problem, AdExpose claims to provide independent verification of an ad's placement.

All three companies want to know as much about me and what's on my screen as they possibly can, although they have different reasons for their interest. None of them seem like evil companies, nor are they singular companies. Like much of this industry, they seem to believe in what they're doing. They deliver more relevant advertising to consumers and that makes more money for companies. They are simply tools to improve the grip strength of the invisible hand.

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And yet, the revelation that 105 different outfits were collecting and presumably selling data about me on the Internet gives me pause. It's not just Google or Facebook or Yahoo. There are literally dozens and dozens of these companies and the average user has no idea what they do or how they work. We just know that for some reason, at one point or another, an organization dropped a cookie on us and have created a file on some server, steadily accumulating clicks and habits that will eventually be mined and marketed.

The online advertising industry argues that technology is changing so rapidly that regulation is not the answer to my queasiness about all that data going off to who-knows-where. The problem, however, is that the industry's version of self-regulation is not one that most people would expect or agree with, as I found out myself.

After running Collusion for a few days, I wanted to see if there was an easy method to stop data collection. Naively, I went to the self-regulatory site run by the Network Advertising Initiative and completed their "Opt Out" form. I did so for the dozens of companies listed and I would say that it was a simple and nominally effective process. That said, I wasn't sure if data would stop being collected on me or not. The site itself does not say that data collection will stop, but it's also not clear that data collection will continue. In fact, the overview of NAI's principles freely mixes talk about how the organization's code "limits the types of data that member companies can use" with information about the opt-out process.

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