Student Life

The terrifying truth about online advertising

Targeted ads dig into your private life to sell you things that you don’t really need

In this day and age, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been using the internet for a number of years. Much like our real lives, the digital content we consume is often riddled with or interrupted by advertisements for products that we don’t necessarily need. What’s different about the online world though, is that these ads are tailored for you, dear user.

When you’re watching TV and a Budweiser ad rolls around, it’s got a specific target demographic audience. The truth is, though, that not everyone who views this ad is part of that demographic. The online world functions quite differently.

The ads you see are a result of what is—in grossly simplified terms—an aggregated amount of data based on your browsing practices. Every search you make identifies with certain key words that are collected and then fed back to you. Advertisers can promote their products to a very specific demographic with a much higher conversion rate than they would using traditional media like radio and television, and at a much lower cost too. Better yet, websites that choose to display these ads can earn revenue by doing so, to help pay for their cost of maintenance or to pocket the money. The earnings are fairly low for smaller websites, but busier sites like Facebook can earn a pretty penny off of your reading space.

If you’ve browsed deeper, there’s no doubt that you’ve landed on pages so completely riddled with ads that the content was almost entirely inaccessible. From overlays on top of text to misleading links for downloads, or just your general obnoxious video that pops out of nowhere, ads are everywhere online. Some of these are directly related to advertisers, while others cautiously hide malicious software that can log your actions to other third party sources, including leaking your passwords.

With this being said, if you’re anything like me and you’re completely sick of seeing this content, know that there are solutions for trimming the fat off of these cluttered, messy pages. Add-ons for browsers like Chrome and Firefox exist, most notably AdBlock+, which allow you to completely block the ads off of many websites. While this may significantly improve your browsing experience, it’s always important to consider that these ads may be the only thing keeping smaller, independent websites alive. Luckily, these add-ons allow you to let certain domains show you advertisements.

Another annoyance is what are known as “toolbars.” These browser extensions that add little tidbits of code to your browser, often disguising themselves as “search helpers” or “download accelerators,” are often riddled with code that has no purpose other than  to pepper you with even more advertisements, making your browsing experience significantly slower and far less enjoyable. There are work-arounds though! For Firefox users, you can use the “add-ons” button from your menu to manage your extensions, and remove those pesky search bars. Chrome users can type “about:plugins” in their URL bar to see a list of installed plugins and extensions that may be plaguing them.

Advertisers will always try to get a step ahead. Considering how much exposure we have to ads in the first place, it’s good to have just a little more control over what we see, and how.

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