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Have you ever felt a little paranoid when, after visiting one site on line, you find links to it on other sites?

It happens like this:  You’re shopping on line and show interest in a product item.  Later while visiting other sites that have sponsored ads on them you keep seeing the same ad that touts just the item you were interested in.  It feels like someone is looking over your shoulder.  It’s creepy.  In fact you may wonder if you can stop it.

Well, you can stop it to some extent and here’s what’s happening and how you can stop it.

It may seem like someone somewhere is keeping a dossier on you to make this happen.  I won’t include what the government may be doing when I say that it’s not exactly as sinister as it seems.

Your browsing habits and information about what your interests are gathered from many sources including the search engines, social media and anywhere you reveal them.  This information is stored in ‘cookies’ that are kept on your computer.  That’s the first part of what is happening.

A cookie is a small piece of information stored as a text file on your computer that a web server uses when you browse certain web sites that you’ve visited before.

Cookies are commonly used when you sign up for services (such as web hosting). Cookies are also commonly used for sign in (login) features. Cookies can only be used with the Domain Name that stored them. Basically, the web server needs to use cookies in order for the web site to work correctly, and the information is nothing more than a string of letters and numbers.

The second part is best represented by the Google sponsored ad programs called ‘Adsense’ and ‘Adwords’.  Adwords campaigns provide the sponsored results you see at the top and down the side of search results pages.  When you click on them the person paying for the ad is charged a fee based on a bidding process among businesses that want that position on the results for your search phrase.  Your click may cost the bidder from ten cents to $25 or more.  It’s a huge business.

Adsense is an arm of that ‘pay per click’ program that rewards websites that permit sponsored ads to show on their pages by paying them a portion of that ‘click fee’.  When you read the news on Google, for instance, most of the news providers have pages that have sponsored links embedded in the text or on the side.  That’s what pays the bills for those sites, the revenue they earn from sponsored ads displayed to you because they provided interesting news to you.  Your having the ads on your free news feed is like having to listen to ads on ‘free’ radio or television.

When you go to a website with these ads the cookies stored on your browser indicate what your interests are.  If the cookie says you are female, under 30, married, have young children, for instance, and you go to an Adsense equipped page the embedded ads may be sponsored by a toy store, a seller of linens, women’s clothing, etc.  If you have recently shopped for a winter coat you may be surprised to see lots of ads for winter coats.

It’s not hard to realize that this ability to present you with tailored ads is going to be much more effective than if the ads were random.  If you’re the above demographic, you’re not as likely to notice ads for muscle cars or snow tires as you would be for the above products.

What seems creepy is when you notice that this targeting is based on you personally, but if you must watch ads, isn’t it better to have ones that you might be interested in?

You can turn off these cookies and you can turn them off without deleting the ‘good’ cookies that websites use to keep track of you when you visit them.  After all there may be a thousand people at once on Macy’s website shopping.  The website has to keep track of all of those users as they make choices.  To do that they place a cookie on your browser so when you return to the site after a break or between pages they know what has gone before.

As an experiment I visited a site that has Adsense and saw an ad for a real estate website specializing in Squaw Valley that I visited yesterday.  I then opened an ‘incognito’ browser window and went to the same site and page.  This time the ad was for Ralph Lauren in which I have no conceivable interest.

For times when you want to browse in stealth mode, Google Chrome offers the incognito browsing mode. Here’s how the incognito mode works:
Webpages that you open and files downloaded while you are incognito aren’t recorded in your browsing and download histories.
All new cookies are deleted after you close all incognito windows that you’ve opened.

There are several advertising companies that have gotten together to agree on standards to allow people to opt-out of this process.  It doesn’t stop the ads but it stops their being targeted to you specifically.  What actually happens is when you request to opt-out the advertising company website sets a cookie that blocks the process.  By agreement they all do it for a minimum of 5 years.  However, if you, for any reason, delete your cookies those cookies are also deleted and you would have to reset them.  To learn more about these ads you can click on the icon,  when you see it on an ad.

You can bookmark the following sites and quickly reset such cookies quite easily.

As I write this there are approximately 118 companies participating in the choices program and 88 have profiles for this computer