November 01, 2012

Web Crawling: How I Was Tracked Online

By Matt Corley

Campaign GRIDIn late September, I started researching the use of online tracking in politics for CREW’s new report, Web Crawlers: How Candidates and Political Groups Track You Online.  I searched using search terms like “online tracking,” “targeted advertising,” and “political web ads,” which led me to articles on the subject and niche news sites that cover the online ad industry. Within a week, ads pitching services for targeted advertising and web analytics were following me around the web.

The first ad I noticed, for online advertising platform CampaignGrid, declared that the company had “voter targeted ads through Election Day.” Unfortunately, though I saved an image of the ad, I didn’t click on the small, blue triangle in the upper right-hand corner of the ad that is the online ad industry’s signal that an ad is based on previous web behavior. If I had, I would have learned the name of the company that served me the ad and possibly some of the information they used to target me.

Luckily, that wasn’t my only opportunity. Weeks later, after I had begun to research particular tracking companies, a banner ad for the ad management platform Criteo – whose code I found on President Obama’s campaign website – appeared above an article on the Guardian’s website. Clicking on the blue triangle, I was taken to a page on Criteo’s website that said I was seeing the banner ad because I had “an active cookie from Criteo” on my computer and I had not opted-out of Criteo’s retargeting service.


Ads for the online trackers didn’t just pop up on the news sites I visited. Even in the so-called “walled garden” of Facebook, I came face to face with ads for companies I recently researched for my report on political online tracking. One day in late October, ads for New Relic -- a performance analytics tool that I found being used on the websites of President Obama, Mitt Romney, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- and AdRoll -- an ad retargeter whose code was on the websites of President Obama and the League of Conservation Voters – appeared stacked together in the “sponsored” section on the right-hand side of my Facebook newsfeed. Unfortunately, no blue triangle was there to tell me how those Facebook ads found me. 

New RelicWhat does this targeted self-promotion say about the online ad targeting business? Not only is it a bit creepy, but it’s also aggressive and very competitive. Companies that track web browsers as part of their business model are searching for potential customers wherever they can find them and they are using their industry’s own tools to do it. This shouldn’t be surprising. Internet advertising is a billion dollar industry that is growing. In the 2012 election cycle, spending on political web advertising is projected to reach at least $160 million, a six-fold increase over the $22 million spent in 2008.

AdRollRecently, CampaignGrid advertisements started appearing on the websites I visited again. On the day that CREW released its report on the use of online tracking by political groups, CampaignGrid ads were plastered across TalkingPointsMemo when I checked their home page. Clicking on the blue triangle this time, I was taken to a page for Google’s AdSense program, which said that the ad was served on TPM because it uses AdSense and Google recognized “the number stored in your browser on the DoubleClick cookie,” allowing it to “shows ads related to the interest and inferred demographic categories associated with that cookie.” Google says it allows you to “edit the categories associated with your browser.” When I followed the link that allowed me to do this, I learned that Google has inferred from my web behavior that I am interested in “Arts & Entertainment - Music & Audio,” “News – Politics,” “People & Society - Social Issues & Advocacy - Work & Labor Issues - Unions & Labor Movement.” Google also believes that I speak English and live in Washington, DC.

How targeted ads about buying targeted ads are relevant to these interests, I have no idea. Instead, I suspect that Google’s statement that it “may use your Google account information…to personalize content and ads on non-Google websites” is a more likely explanation for the targeting that led CampaignGrid’s ads to appear in my browser since I was signed into my Gmail account while conducting most of my research on targeted ads.

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