Ever Feel Like You’re Being Followed Online… It’s Because You Are

, Another rant from , 1 Comment

Let start this with a story.

It begins in a Target store just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota in the USA.

One day a man stormed into the Minneapolis Target store demanding to talk to the stores manager. The manger came to the desk and was confronted by a rather irate man holding a mail coupon he received at his house from Target that contained coupons to receive some great discounts on selected stock. The coupons were for specific items; namely baby products like maternity wear, nursery equipment etc, and contained pictures of smiling little babies.

Baby TargetNot really much of a problem right? Well, the man didn’t so much have an issue with receiving junk mail to his home address; his problem was more that the coupons were addressed specifically to his daughter… who was still in high school.

“Are you trying to convince her to get pregnant?’ bellowed the man. “ She’s still in high school!”

The Target manager apologised to the angry father, completely unaware of why the man’s teenage daughter had received these coupons, as direct mailers are organised by head office. A couple of days later the manager got in contact with the father by phone to once again apologise for the offence the coupons had caused, however this time the conversation went a little differently between the father and the Target manager.

Since coming in store the father had had a chance to chat to his daughter about the encounter. “It is I who owe you an apology,” said the apologetic father  “I spoke to my daughter and there’s been some things that I was not aware of. She’s due in August”.

So how did Target know about this young girls pregnancy, so early into it that she’d not even had a chance to tell her parents whom she lived with that it was happening.

Like a lot of websites today, Target collects every little bit of data you provide them about your online activity while you are on their site. In this instance, this girl had been recently browsing items such as baby blankets, cribs, rattles etc. When this data was married up with her id – via either signing in, or purchasing online – Target was able to determine a bunch of information that strongly suggested that this particular web user was displaying browsing and purchasing patterns that are typically linked with someone who is about to have a baby.

“Using data based on items a user had been looking at while online, Target was able to figure out a girl was about to have a baby before even her family was”

Clearly it was early in the process though (she hadn’t even told her folks), but Target was keen to turn that window shopper into a transaction, and the best way to do this is via an incentive like a coupon in the mail.

Next thing you know, there’s an angry dad at the service desk calling for the head of the manager encouraging his little girl to have a baby.

You can read about this in more depth here. It’s a pretty long article but goes into a lot of detail on the different techniques retailers use to up-sell to you.

If you’re in the online marketing industry, then activity like this probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But for everyone else, this might seem a bit creepy.

The method Target used is an example of what’s called Remarketing and it’s a super effective way online marketing assholes like me convince you to buy the products we’re trying to sell.

How Does Remarketing Work?

Essentially, whenever you visit a website – or do almost anything online – you are leaving a trail of data. Little snippets of information about you based on the interactions you’ve had online. This trail can come in a number of ways. The most common of which is called a cookie. A cookie is a little piece of code that most website drop into your browser that captures information about your visit. Things like how long you were there, what pages you visited, when you left, when you came back etc.

With this information websites can paint a picture of who you are, and then market to you based on your activity.

Once a site has dropped a cookie, they can then use services like Google or Facebook to target ads at you. They pay sites like Facebook or sites that are linked into networks like Google to display ads that remind you to come back to their site and complete your activity (usually to buy something).

Remarketing Description Infographic

Ever wondered why just days after you looked at those shoes, all of the sudden you are seeing ads for that brand everywhere? That’s the little cookie doing its job – sharing data stored on your computer with the site you are currently browsing.

In fact, if you look to the right of your screen in my navigation menu, there’s a good chance the ad on my site is kind of relevant for you right now. That ad has likely been algorithmically chosen for you based on the sites you’ve visited, the types of sites you like to visit or even the fact that you are on a nerdy little site reading content like this.
This particular ad is served to you via what’s called the Google Display Network. That company is paying Google a fraction of a cent for you to see that ad. If you click it, they pay Google a few cents, and then Google pays me a share of that money.

“Essentially, whenever you visit a website – or do almost anything online – you are leaving a trail of data”

Your browsing habits, that little cookie and your mouse click on ads is what has made Google a company that makes $40billion every quarter. Cool huh.

Another way you are tracked and remarketing to is via logged-in information. This is where remarketing can get super targeted. When you log in to platforms like Facebook or Google it allows the platform to capture A LOT more data about you and assign it to your specific profile.

That’s why when you’re on Facebook; the ads are a lot more targeted to your needs. (Unfortunately for me I get a lot of hair loss ads – bastards!). They know everything about you, more than a simple cookie ever could. Where as cookie based tracking can provide high-level information about you, when you’re logged in then it gets a lot more specific. All that fun information you’ve been putting on Facebook for the past 6 years, that data is being stored, analysed and used to market extremely targeted ads and content to your exact personality type. More about that one here.

A bit about the Google Display Network

The most widely used network of sites and services that serve up this targeted content is Google – via the Google Display Network. If you see a banner ad on a site, then it likely comes from Google.

Google provides a service called AdWords, which allows businesses to bid on where their ads show up. As mentioned above they can target these ads based on a number of criteria including you browsing history, gender, interests, age and more.

In early June, Google began BETA testing a new targeting function within the US called Parental Status. It’s a feature that with the press of a button, advertisers can market to you based on if you have kids or not.

AdWords Parental Status – Creepy or cool?

There’s a lot of talk online about this feature over the past couple of days, mainly asking the question ‘Has Google gone too far this time’. A lot of people will believe they have, but as the Target example above shows, this data is and has been available for marketers for quite some time.

Adwords Parental targeting

For an online marketer like me, if I wanted to know the signals as to if you had kids or not, and market my product to you based on that information, then I could pretty easily find that out and make a few filters on my ad campaigns to find you. It’s actually pretty simple to do. All Google has done is put a button to help me do it now. They’ve taken two or three steps out of the process for me. Your data has always been available though.

“But it’s families Daylan! Kids! Surely that’s invasive. Families are out of bounds, man!” I hear you screaming at your screen right now!

“Stop yelling at your screen. People will think you’re crazy” I would say to you.
The next thing I would say to you is to think of this functionality in another perspective that’s a little easier to swallow. What if it was a ‘tradesman status’ button instead of a ‘family status’? The functionality targeted people who frequent sport club sites, hardware forums and are on mobile phones a lot. This data fits a web usage pattern that is most commonly seen by tradies. On the road, need tools, like sports etc. This is data that would allow companies like Bunnings or SportsBet target their exact demographic more accurately; providing the business with better leads and the audience with the content they are most likely in the market for.

Not that big of a deal right? In fact, it sounds like a pretty great online experience for tradesmen huh!

Now swap ‘tradesmen’ to ‘people with kids’.

All this functionality does is makes sure the content that people with little kids are most likely looking for, is served up to them when they are browsing online.

I think the sensitivity comes from the fact that ‘parenting’ is being mentioned in the same breath as ‘Google Ads’.

Is it creepy? On the surface it might seem like it. But it’s data you are giving up every time you interact online.  You have been for years.  And it’s data that’s attempting to make your online experience a more targeted, efficient one. It ensures that if you have a little baby, then you’re more likely to see ads and content for nappies and teething, rather than for hammers and plumbing supplies.

Screw this! How can I block retargeting?

There are a few options.

Remove Cookies

As mentioned above, you are likely having all sorts of fun bits of data dropped onto your computer by various apps and websites. You can remove these cookies via the settings option of your web browser.
Be warned though, cookies are not malicious (unless you are visiting some pretty suspect sites). They store data that is designed to make your web experience better. Cookies are what keeps you shopping carts populated when you leave your favourite online store, or saves that article you wanted to read later on that news site. Cookies essentially make your web experience more streamlined; saving data and information so you don’t need to resubmit it each time you visit a site. So delete/disable at your own peril.


Browsers like Chrome now have functionality that lets you browse the internet and prevent data from being stored – both on your computer or by websites. This functionality is called Private Browsing or Incognito. It will not allow cookies to be stored or browsing history to be saved (use it for what you will). It’s like browsing the Internet without any baggage – you’ll still see ads, but nothing will be saved or pernsonalised to your experience.


Technically, you’re still going to have cookies stored and data captured with this option, but it will remove the customised adds from your web experience.


So there you have it. For years now your online browsing habits have been forming a little online bubble targeted specifically for you. The Google search results you see are different to ones that I see, even if we’re looking for the same keyword. It’s all been catered to my habits and your habits.

Is this a bad thing or a good thing? Well I guess that’s up to you to decide. In the mean time, jerks like me are gonna use this information to follow you around the internet to sell stuff.

See you ‘round (whether you know about it or not).


Who the hell is Daylan Pearce?

Daylan is a digital strategist for branding agency Principals. Looking after digital and customer experience projects, Daylan has been featured in The New York Times, News.com.au, B&T, ProBlogger and more. He once ate 13 McDonald's cheeseburgers in under 5 minutes, but strongly advises against anyone else ever trying that. He also feels slightly odd when writing about himself in the third person for blog biography summaries.


One Response

  1. Steven Wright

    June 24, 2014 6:18 PM

    Using a chrome extension like ghostery will block third party scripts at a http request level, meaning it does much more than adblocker (I believe). It will stop cookies from being generated, reduce payload of every required http request, and dramatically reduce the overall number of requests, often from slow servers. Basically, in 2012, it was the first time the Web had slowed down according to state of the web type reports. My hypothesis is it’s due to remarketing/analytics/adwords/blah blah really coming to the fore.