Hate being followed by airfare offers after researching a trip or video game ads after browsing for child's gift? Tracking by online marketers can be annoying and even feel like an invasion of your privacy. But before you decide to go incognito, there are a few good reasons you may want to be tracked online.
How you are tracked
Before we get into the upside of having your online movements followed, we need to look at how it works. First, know that there is no real way around being tracked in some fashion or another. For years, third-party advertisers have used a combination of your browsing history, demographic information, and purchase history to assemble a profile of your online habits to send targeted, personalized ads your way, in a process called Online Behavioral Advertising, or OBA.
Here’s how OBA works: You visit a site like Amazon.com and your browser will load text and images provided by Amazon. Your browser will also load third-party content like the Facebook Like button or Tweet button that are prevalent on the majority of the web, and the advertisements on the site as well. As the content is loaded in your browser, cookies from Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, and the advertisements are added to your computer.
Cookies have unique ID numbers, and ping back to its source location every time they come in contact. For instance, cookies allow a website like Amazon to provide features like recalling recently viewed items, and to remember your login information.
Cookies also allow third parties like an ad or Facebook to follow you around the web, as Facebook buttons are everywhere, and a single ad can serve thousands of websites, or may even be part of an ad network, which could further increase the breadth of possible connections between your cookie and its source.
So just turn off cookies, right?
Cookies are rather easy to get rid of on modern browsers like Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari, but as they are an essential part of the web, turning cookies completely off would dramatically dilute your Internet experience.
You can always erase your cookies when you’re done browsing, but you will have to log back in to accounts that you may keep logged in during your next session. Every time.
What about the Do Not Track feature?
Many people rely on Do Not Track, a browser feature that purportedly stops advertisers and other third parties from tracking your Internet habits and sending you targeted ads. Born from the same thought process that gave us the Do Not Call list, a nationwide list of telephone numbers that telemarketers are banned from calling, Do Not Track looks to establish that same barrier between consumers and online advertisers.
It has been pitched as the middle ground between having cookies turned off and thus a poor online experience, or an assembled profile of your likes and spending habits. Do Not Track works by sending a text file from your browser requesting not to be tracked. All four major browsers allow you to turn on Do Not Track in settings. Microsoft even enabled Do Not Track in Internet Explorer 10 by default last year.
The problem with Do Not Track is it is not a mandatory standard, and advertisers can easily ignore it. There is no mandate that compels third parties to abide by Do Not Track request, as it is just that, a request. If you use Internet Explorer 10, companies like Yahoo — who has stated they won’t recognize Do Not Track requests from Internet Explorer 10 — have no directive or incentive to respect your desire not to be tracked.
So if I accept I'm being tracked, what's in it for me?
Let’s be clear, first-party tracking is something that everyone wants and utilizes on a daily basis. Remembering login information, the contents of your shopping cart, and stored preferences are all due to first-party tracking.
Third-party tracking is where the questionable practices come in, but even those practices have some upsides. If you are tracked by your preferred retailer, you may start seeing ads for products you may actually be interested in. You may get deals or sales in ads directed toward you. Less spammy and more personalized advertisements may make you despise that drop-down advertisement a little less, especially if it is something you’re inclined to look into further.
But where do tracking companies draw the line?
The problem with online tracking is there is no line, and no one has picked up the pen to draw it. There have been discussions between members of Congress, the FTC, and the World Wide Web Consortium, the international organization that sets the standards for the web, but those talks appear to be in trouble. While there are pros and cons to being tracked by third-parties on the Internet, the one thing we still lack is a real choice in the matter.
In the meantime, enjoy the benefits of first-party tracking and keep an eye on the tendrils of third-party tracking as you surf the Internet. Because, short of using anonymizing services, your online activities will never be entirely private.
[woman with laptop image via Shutterstock]