Ad Stalking – When Ads Follow You Online

Ever look for something online only to have the item follow you in the form of an ad wherever you go online? Advertisers call this ‘retargeting’ or ‘remarketing’, most users call it ‘creepy’.

This form of advertising is on the rise as start-ups like Criteo and TellApart are joined by the heavy hitters in online ad publishing like Google and Microsoft, while at the same time an increasing number of stores are leveraging the functionality.

The heavy sales pressure and creep-factor of today’s retargeting programs is so high for many users that they make a vow to never shop on the company’s site again.

The sentiment is understandable. I was recently retargeted to such an extent by Residence Hall Linens that I finally I took a snapshot of the nagging experience when the ad tracked me down on YouTube.

Apparently they hoped that if I only saw their ad often enough I might finally make a purchase. It backfired.

The New York Times recently covered retargeting in an article that hit a frustration point with so many readers it sparked 248 responses – and the only favorable ones I found came from ad industry insiders. A few comments from industry insiders were actually apologetic, and most of the general public comments were angry.

“Among digital advertisers, retargeting is seen as the next breakthrough as it allows companies to provide just-in-time marketing. According to Aaron Magness, senior director for brand marketing and business development at Zappos, “The overwhelming response has been positive.”

I’m guessing Mr. Magness didn’t read the comments generated by the NYT’s article:

“I did a search for .. lotion and now there is an ad on many of the sites I visit. After a few days I realized that the ad was the result of my searches and felt violated. I have decided to purchase a product from a competitor that is not stalking me.”

“If I wander into a store to browse, rather lost in thought, I don’t want a salesperson breathing down my neck.. Hard sellers, whether human or virtual, make me want to flee the scene.”

Remarketing technology is akin to an extremely annoying child who keeps repeating the same thing. Over and Over and Over and Over …. I experienced that with Zappos and the adds got so annoying that I added Zappos to the blocked sites on my Anti Virus software.

I bought a computer earlier this year and did online research and ads for the company STILL show up. I so would sign up for a “do not target” list but perhaps these marketers would ignore this list just like the ones still calling my home.

Same thing happened to me. The ad kept coming up for a particular store, it was very creepy. I wound up getting the item several weeks later but I made sure to ..not buy from the annoying store. When I’m reading the paper online I don’t want to be bombarded with random items I may have recently been researching. So when it happens I make a note not to do business with the company that’s involved in the onslaught.

As more consumers find themselves targeted by ads that follow them, privacy concerns are coming to the fore.

Retargeting has helped turn on a light bulb for consumers,” said Jeff Chester, a privacy advocate and executive director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy. “It illustrates that there is a commercial surveillance system in place online that is sweeping in scope and raises privacy and civil liberties issues, too.”

The actual technology behind retargeting is not new it relies on websites dropping cookies (small text files) on computers of people who use their website. Virtually all commercial websites use cookies for various purposes, and in general these provide a service to you – it means they know how to recognize you when you return to their service, let’s you stay signed in, allows the site to maintain any customization you may have done on their site, and it is used for advertising.

(NOTE: the iLOOKBOTHWAYS website does not drop cookies onto your computer or track you in any way).

What remarketing companies do is look for cookies that flag items you looked at on one site, so that even though you are on a different site, the advertising engine can still create and deliver an ad based on the item you checked out.

In the NYT article, Mr. Magness said that consumers may be unnerved because they may feel that they are being tracked from site to site as they browse the Web. To reassure consumers, Zappos displays a message inside their retargeted ads that reads, “Why am I seeing these ads?” If  users click on it, they are directed to the website of Zappos’ ad engine company Criteo, where the ads are explained.

Once users understand how the ads are selected and made to follow a user, few choose to opt out claims Jean-Baptiste Rudelle, the chief executive of Criteo. Others aren’t convinced.

Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, who has conducted consumer surveys about online advertising said “When you begin to give people a sense of how this is happening, they really don’t like it,” and added that he personally had a visceral negative reaction to the ads, even though he understands the technologies behind them. “It seemed so bold,” Professor Turow said. “I was not pleased, frankly.”

The biggest issue may simply be the primitive way these ads stalk a user. Alan Pearlstein, chief executive of Cross Pixel Media, a digital marketing agency says he supports retargeting, but with more subtlety saying “What is the benefit of freaking customers out?”  Pearlstein suggests for example that the ads could offer consumers a discount coupon if they return to an online store. This sentiment was shared by several of the people who commented on the NYT’s article:

I understand how a person could be a bit uncomfortable with the concept of retargeting if they don’t understand what is actually happening…the privacy lobby is just overblowing the issue… there is already clear cut legislation prohibiting the connection of “cookie data” with personally identifiable information (i.e. the cookie can identify a browser profile, but is not allowed to associate profile with a specific person).

Retargeting is a very effective tool. There is an enormous amount of empirical evidence to support this… it represents a very benign targeting methodology which allows for higher advertising prices and helps to maintain the status quo of free premium content on the internet. In my opinion, it is a pretty binary question – pay walls or targeted ads.

I am a strong believer in the importance of privacy online and clear regulation to protect people from the exploitation of their browsing history or personal information…but I find it extremely ironic that someone might complain about being retargeted for an ad yet voluntarily allow for social censorship through the use of services like Foursquare. I guess the notion of a systematized and anonymous advertising method is a lot scarier than letting herds of vague acquaintances know when and where you are buying a coffee or getting a beer.

The reality is retargeting will become de rigueur, and the only issues significant numbers of consumers have with it result from the sloppy, 1st-generation technologies being deployed. Just as early paid search systems were improved upon over time, the same will happen with retargeting, and that will assuage consumers.

When retargeting is bad, it’s because the real issue with this sort of retargeting is not that consumers find it intrusive, but rather that the system behind it is unintelligent….

If this philosophy doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps recommended solutions provided by other comments by on the site will:

There is a very simple solution for people disturbed by this: periodically purge your cookie cache. That means you will have to sign in (not up – just reenter your user name and password) again for all of your favorite pages, but a comprehensive cookie purge is beneficial in other ways as well.

I have a simple and free app that I downloaded years ago which patrols websites and “kills ads dead” …and haven’t had an advertisement pop its head at me in all that time. Why aren’t more people simply washing their screens of any ads, much less ones that follow them around online?

When I asked Google if this was intentional and they replied Yes! they offered me an “opt-out” which I took advantage of and I’ve not been followed around on the internet since – at least not obviously.

If you don’t want these (or any) ads, what can you do? Perhaps the most popular option is to use Adblock Plus, a browser add-on for Firefox users.

Google users may want to go to and to opt out, or to manage their ad settings.



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