When Danielle Farrar, a product manager for a leading online network, started planning her wedding, she “Googled” the resources and services she needed to help plan her big day. And when, during her subsequent searches, wedding-related ads started popping up, it actually didn’t bother her.
“I think it's helpful. It turns what would ordinarily be lame advertisements into relevant content,” she says. “I can't tell you how many times I've actually purchased something as a result of targeted ads.”
On the other hand, says Rebecca Smith, a tech-savvy writer: “I might think it was creepy, except that I never click on Google ads, so there's nothing for me to fear. I always just assume they're spam and ignore them.”
Some privacy groups are concerned that on the whole, Google is tracking way too much information about Web users. The organization Consumer Watchdog (consumerwatchdog.org) has advocated for the passage of federal “Do Not Track Legislation” that would limit what data Google collects about its users and how it uses it.
So what is Google tracking about you in the name of serving you personalized ads? Here’s how Google’s ad technology works -- and how to take better control of your ad experience:
Step No. 1: Know the types of Google Ad programs
Marketers pay to play on Google to reach you with ads in several ways, including:
- Google Display Network: These are the websites that have partnered with Google and sites like YouTube (which Google owns) that display Google AdWords ads. These ads can be text, images or videos. The ads are generated based on keywords you type as you search the Web or are based on the content of websites you visit via Google’s services.
Step No. 2: Know how Google serves you personalized ads
According to Google’s advertising and privacy terms of service, here’s how the company says it serves your targeted ads on Google’s services:
- It may place a cookie in your browser. Once you’ve gotten a cookie, Google will track some of your Web browsing activities to “understand the types of pages visited or content that you viewed” and serve related ads. For example, if you often visit music websites, Google may show more ads related to music.
- It might give you an anonymous ID. In addition to a cookie, Google says it may assign your device, such as your smartphone or laptop, an anonymous ID and “may use information about your activity in applications or other clients” via the anonymous ID.
- It will try to understand who you are demographically -- to an extent. Google can also use the types of websites that you have visited to infer your sex or age range. For example, if you click through to sites that have mostly female visitors, then Google might assume that you’re also a female. However, Google says it doesn’t associate what it calls “sensitive interest categories” with your browser or anonymous ID, such as those “based on race, religion, sexual orientation, health, or sensitive financial categories and will not use such categories when showing you interest-based ads.”
- It may track your searches and where you go online. Google might further personalize ads by analyzing the sites you click on via Google -- including links you click through Gmail.
- It “scans” your Gmail. According to Google, the service doesn’t “read” your email, but it scans for keywords and may target ads that way. For example, if you’ve been emailing friends about new vacuum cleaners, you might start seeing ads for vacuum cleaners. However, Google promises not to share your email address or messages with advertisers.
Step No. 3: Know how to protect your privacy -- for the most part
For starters, if you really care about your online privacy, keep tabs on Google’s policy (www.google.com/intl/en/privacy/privacy-policy.html), which can change at any time. Here’s what else you can do if you want to limit the personalized ads you receive:
- Use the Ads Preferences Manager. You can use this tool to remove any interest categories that don’t apply to you. Find it here: www.google.com/ads/preferences/.
- Opt out. In the manager, you can also click the “Opt out” button and then Google says it “will not collect interest category information and you will not receive interest-based ads.”
- Beware when you’re mobile. When you’re using a mobile device, your ad preferences may not apply.
Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/GiorgioMagini
Courtney Macavinta is a Silicon Valley-based journalist who has written for CNET, Inc., Red Herring, Wired News, The Washington Post and other publications.