The Talk

WHO ARE YOU: Does the Internet know the real you?

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Earlier this year I won a bouquet of cheese after clicking on what was clearly a targeted ad -- I love cheese.
Earlier this year I won a bouquet of cheese after clicking on what was clearly a targeted ad -- I love cheese.

While planning my wedding in the late 1990s, I did a lot of research and shopping online.

While online marketing was in its infancy – I think Amazon just sold books – I found it a useful tool to buy things such as the antique rhinestone necklace I wore to ordering wedding invitations.

Buying things online wasn’t quite as seamless as it is today, but for a busy young professional, being able to search through wedding cake toppers online during my lunch break was a huge timesaver.

As unsophisticated as the Web was at the time, I was no more savvy.

Even then, Internet marketers used cookies and other tracking devices to discover what you were shopping for to better target advertisements to you.

I don’t think I was aware of the technology; I just thought that suddenly everything was all about weddings all the time. The Internet must have been as in love as I was.

Today, I know better.

Back then, someone at work looked over my shoulder, saw that every banner ad was for www.everythingbrides.com or www.weddingjewelry.com or somesuch, and joked that I must have been “doing a lot of surfing for wedding stuff.” (That’s how someone would have put it in 1999.)

I asked, “How do you know?” He explained that the ads were targeted to me because of the things I had been searching for – obviously wedding things.

“Oh,” I said, disappointed that the Internet wasn’t as excited about my wedding as I was, but wiser nonetheless.

Today, Internet marketers aren’t just tracking what you search for, but looking at dozens of factors to try to determine who you are and how to best sell things to you.

Mostly, I have no problem with that.

I know Internet privacy proponents are probably spitting out their coffee, but I don’t mind a little tracking.

If tracking means I get ads targeted to me for things I like, fine.

If you look at a Web page I’ve just been on, chances are you’ll see ads for candles, jewelry and Caribbean vacations. Yup, those are the things I like.

It certainly better than being barraged with ads for tractor pulls or girlie magazines.

If you want to see what you’ll get when ads aren’t targeted to you, look in your email spam folder. It’s a scary, scary place filled with Viagra ads and singles hotlines – not my cup of tea.

It gets funny, though, when you share a computer with someone.

My husband and I, for example, share an Amazon Prime account. While we love each other, that’s where our in-common tastes end.

The “You may also like” section on the bottom of the Web page seems like the little tracking bots think it’s looking at a crazy person’s preferences.

Recommendations range from the latest Morrissey CD to a guide to Russian prison tattoos.

I’ll let you figure out whose tastes are whose.

Facebook can be even funnier. I have, shall we say, a diverse group of friends. Because of some of their tastes, I find myself occasionally seeing ads for everything from Harley biker gear to organic, reusable diapers. Depending on whose page I may have visited most recently, I may find myself suddenly getting ads in Arabic, Spanish or Thai.

I may have friends that speak those languages, but I certainly do not, so I wouldn’t call that good targeting.

A day ago, I visited the Charm and Beauty Boutique page on Facebook to do research before I profile owner Constance Brown for an upcoming article.

While Brown sells clothing and accessories for women of all races, she is black – and so are some of the models on her website.

I must have spent a lot of time on the page, because when I went back to my own, suddenly all of the people in the ads on the side of the page were black.

It wasn’t until that point that I had realized that almost all of the ads I had been seeing featured white women.

I guess I didn’t realize just what factors they were using to target me. I don’t think I like that.

Moreover, it shows that the little man behind the Web marketing curtain doesn’t always know what he’s doing, and despite nearly 15 years of progress, the Web tracking may have gotten more pervasive and intrusive – it hasn’t necessarily gotten better.

Yes, I like candles, and, no, I don’t speak Thai. But don’t assume I’m more likely to buy something from someone because they look like me. That’s scary territory.

Stacy Wescoe

Stacy Wescoe

Writer and online editor Stacy Wescoe covers technology and trends plus keeps you up to date on what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler and on social media. Reach her at stacyw@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 104. Follow her on Twitter at @morestacy and on Facebook and circle her on Google+.

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