behavioral targeting

What is Behavioral Targeting? What does it look like on the internet, and how can you opt out of it?

I’m being stalked by a 6-foot suede bean bag chair.

It all started when I visited my friend Crystal from Budgeting in the Fun Stuff. She had just finished creating a media room complete with a 100-inch projector screen and a 6-foot bean bag chair. Seeing this chair in her room reminded me of my very own black leather one that provided guest seating in my teenage bedroom, and I fell back onto it, melting into the fluff. Crystal joined me—her chair is so large that up to three adults can lay on it and not touch one another—and we talked in bean-bag-chair bliss one Saturday afternoon.

When I got home I looked up the chair on, half thinking about adding one to my office, our library, the bedroom…but found that it cost approximately $192. I clicked off the ad, easily tabling the idea for another time as the chair was just too much money to put towards something that was not a priority, especially because of the changes we recently made to our household.

But the advertiser was not done with me. The exact bean bag chair (size, color, pricing) began to follow me around the internet like a cyber bully. It showed up in the most unlikely places—next to my emails, as a banner on a personal finance blog…my questionable choice in furniture even made it to the front page of a major newspaper—stalking me for days.  I felt like I had a bullseye painted across my forehead.

People Need to Make Money on the Internet

The thing is, people put a lot of time and effort into providing free content on the internet. I am one of them. So I completely understand the need for them to make money in ways other than by charging for content. Of course not all content is free, but providing free content and hosting advertisements is probably the most common internet business model.

In fact, you'll see ads on my blog as well (you probably already noticed!).

I am not ashamed about that, as I work hard to provide free content and am happy that it can be sponsored by ads instead of by my audience.

People put a lot of time and effort into providing free content on the internet. Click To Tweet

However, behavioral targeting takes things to a whole different level that I am not all together comfortable with.

Why Behavioral Targeting Works

Let’s face it, behavioral targeting is around because it is highly effective. In the example above, the advertiser was able to stalk me with the exact product I had in my mind down to the correct size and shape because they tracked and analyzed my searches and the websites I visited.

Without this method, I still would have been shown ads, but instead for things like a pair of sandals or some diamond earrings. The conversion rate would have been nonexistent since I am not an impulsive shopper. The advertiser was able to further their goals by a method called “retargeting” or “remarketing”, which essentially allows them to continue showing me targeted ads as I peruse the World Wide Web.

Behavioral targeting is around because it is highly effective. Click To Tweet

Sometimes behavioral targeting is a good thing, like when my credit card sends me coupons tailored to places I like to shop.

Win-win there, right?

But it can also financially handicap me, like when I found out that the airline industry might be using my information against me to increase airline ticket prices on the exact location and dates I have previously searched for (finding this out made me start to pay attention to cookies, and not the chocolate chip kind).

How to Opt-Out from Some Behavioral Targeting

I am not an IT person, but have done some research as to how consumers can opt-out of behavioral targeting.

  • Clear Your Cookies: This wikiHow offers great instructions for how to clear your computer of cookies one internet browser at a time. I make a habit of doing this once every few months, and would like to warn you that unless you specify which cookies to clear, you will lose the automatic fill-ins of data that make the internet more user-friendly (such as when your computer automatically fills in your address, website, password, username).
  • Block Analysis of Your Internet Habits: PrivacyChoice offers some tools to put a stop to behavioral targeting. If you have internet explorer 9 or FireFox you can install TrackerBlock. TrackerBlock will block tracking cookies, flash cookies and HTML5 objects. It also sets permanent opt-out status and sends a “Do Not Track” signal.
  • Block Ads for Impulsive Shoppers: For someone who does not have a lot of discipline, behavioral targeting could become an enabler and crush your bottom line. It’s like constantly being confronted with luscious slices of tiramisu and key lime pie when you are attempting to diet. There are services out there that allow you to block sidebars from your computer where many ads are hosted. You can also work through the browser you are using for InPrivate Ad Filtering Settings (it may be called something different on your browser).
  • Break Up with the Companies Connected to Your Browser: This free tool (thanks, Daniel) scans your browser and comes up with the number of companies who have enabled Online Behavioral ads on it. My scan revealed there were a total of 85 companies customizing ads for my browser. To get rid of this, you simply click on the companies you'd like to remove, or “select all” to get rid of all of them at once.

I stuck to my guns and did not buy the bean bag chair. After a few days the advertisers finally gave in as well because I was no longer greeted by a fluffy, suede blob in the mornings. Don’t get me wrong, one day that gigantic bean bag chair may find a home in my office, but only when I am ready for it.

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Amanda L. Grossman is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 10 years, her money work helping people with how to save money and how to manage money has been featured in Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here.
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