Everyday, I use the internet to research information on a wide array of industries and businesses. The types of websites I visit can be about everything from 3-D printers to how a company transports beehives. Even though I understand how such advertising works, I still think it’s a little creepy whenever an ad for a 3-D printer shows up on a website about beehives, or an ad about beekeeping shows up here on SmallBusiness.com.

What makes those ads ‘stalk’ you?

Depending on who is explaining this, there are different terms used to explain the way in which internet ads are personalized for you as you move around the internet.

Here are a few of them:

  • Behavioral marketing, or behavioral-targeting or -retargeting: These terms all refer to the technologies and techniques that collect information about your web-browsing behavior and then use that data to help determine (guess?) what ads to display to you. What sites you visit, how long you stay and what you click on helps build your profile in the database of the company that manages the ads for the website you are using. (For example, the ads appearing on SmallBusiness.com are part of Google’s Adsense program.)
  • Personalized or interest-based advertising: Okay, this is a trick. “Personalized advertising” or “interest-based advertising” are exactly the same as behavioral marketing, except these names sound way more friendly to the user. Targeting, of any kind, is a war metaphor that conjures a picture in which we customers have a bullseye painted on our foreheads. Advertising that is based on our interests, however, sounds like it’s something we should be happy about. The reality is likely somewhere in the middle, and different for each individual.
  • Location-based advertising: In addition to building a profile of the types of information, products and services you’re interested in, your computer or mobile device also can reveal to the advertising company your location, enabling the ads to be customized geographically.

Why this type of advertising is good

Advertising that is personalized to my interests can be a good thing. It keeps me from seeing ads that I have no interest in and lets me discover things I may like. If, for example, I love anything to do with bicycles, I don’t consider the advertising I see on that topic an infringement on my privacy.

Why this type of advertising is bad

There’s a point at which personalization crosses a line of creepiness. If I see the same ad for a close-out sale at a national retailer of men’s clothes on every site I visit, I begin to wonder what else the store knows about me. And, for that matter, since I’ve never purchased anything online from the retailer, how does it know I purchased a shirt from there offline last year? Wait! Are you telling me they are merging data about me from offline to serve up ads to me online? Like I said, creepy.

How to create a balance between helpful personalization and creepy stalking?

Government regulations, self-regulated industry standards and common sense on the part of reputable marketers have forced the major advertising networks and hosting services to add more transparency and user-control to personalized (or, targeted) advertising. The major internet advertising companies provide ways to opt-out or take more control of the data being collected about you.

However, the privacy tools are often hidden or obscured, and you may need to dig to find them.

The ways Google allows you to manage what ads you see

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Google has, by far, the largest number of ads and advertisers on the web properties it owns and on millions of websites through its Adsense program. It also works with some of the world’s largest advertisers through Double Click, a company it owns. Therefore, it is not surprising that Google also provides an excellent set of tools to allow users a great deal of control over the kinds of ads they see.

Here are some of the Google settings you can control:

  • Block specific advertisers: Google allows you to block ads from up to 500 different advertisers.
  • Mute ads you don’t want to see: Muting an ad blocks it and other ads that use the same web URL (either the website domain or specific pages) from being shown to you.
  • Remove or add interests: Turn off ads that relate to something no longer relevant. Taken up a new activity? You may want to activate ads related to it.
  • Manage demographic information: Control gender, language age and other information you think may help you minimize irrelevant ads.
  • Control your interests: Control what types of ads you see by using a control panel of your personal interests.
  • Opt Out: Google will still serve ads relevant to your location, but if you opt out, they won’t track websites you visit.

Digital advertisers provide ways for you to opt out of behavioral advertising

As a means to self-regulate themselves (and avoid more and more government regulations), a wide coalition of advertisers, trade groups and advertising servers and networks have created a coalition called the Digital Advertising Alliance’s (DAA) Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising. It provides information for consumers and even tools to discover and control the cookies on your browser that advertisers use.

Web browsers also provide ways that allow you you prevent companies from collecting data about you

If you share a computer that is also used by others, say a spouse, maybe you’ve had this happen: You’ve been shopping online for a birthday or holiday gift and realize that no matter what site you go to, ads for the gift start showing up. To avoid this, open a new window of your browser using the “private” or “incognito” mode. This will prevent most major online retailers and advertising networks from placing the type of tracking code on your browser that associates it with the product you are shopping for.

Additionally, there are other ways to control your privacy via your browser. Start with these sites to learn more about your browser’s privacy controls:

Firefox and Chrome also have extensive collections of add-ons that can help enhance your control over your privacy:

Do you have any tips for managing the ads you see on the internet? If so, share them in the comments below.