On Campus

How online retailers know what you want, even if you don’t

Tara Thomas | Updated on January 28, 2013 Published on January 28, 2013

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One of the huge changes noticeable on the internet in recent years, was the launch and rapid growth of a plethora of online retailers. Currently, the market in India alone is said to be valued at around $500 million and is rising rapidly. What can you get? The list is almost endless. Clothes, books, beauty products, home appliances, even organic food and vegetables! From a consumer’s point of view, energy and fuel is saved, no traffic jams have to be dealt with and online banking is safe and secure, so why not? It seems clear that online shopping is here to stay.

But even for someone who has mastered ad-avoidance techniques, it is hard to miss the very obvious ads that nudge their way into almost any Web site you frequent. I first noticed this after looking at some shoes that were on an online sale, but decided to come back to them later. Suddenly, almost all the Web sites I visited were advertising the very same pair of shoes, and a couple more that looked like them. That couldn’t have been just a coincidence. The site may primarily be about technology or sports, but on the side, flashing and glinting to grab your attention is an ad from a popular online clothing and lifestyle brand. You might click on that advertisement and look around a bit, and even close it because you don’t like what you see, but the ad isn’t ready to let go. Notice how it will follows you around in cyber space, especially your social media sites. If you’re reading this article online – you might even see them here around the text!

Alright, it might not really seem like a big deal. After all, newspapers, magazines and most companies on the internet survive on advertisements. Why should it bother you? Perhaps it shouldn’t. However, anyone who uses the internet, especially to shop online, should be aware that there is a constant collection of information happening ‘behind the scenes’ about you. (None of which will ever be useful to you, but certainly useful to e-commerce vendors) What you’ve been wanting to buy, how long you’ve spent looking at each product, what stage of buying are you in right now you got on the website, what other sites you have visited and what ads they generated – the list goes on.

According to the Wall Street Journal, companies that require sign up information from you – while guaranteeing that they will not share your details with anyone, find loopholes in your agreement (that thing you always scroll through real quick and click “I accept” on) – convert information such as e-mail addresses into jumbled strings of numbers and letters. Ad companies do the same, and both send their lists to a third company. If this company finds a match, they can show an ad targeted to a specific person. And this isn’t the only way it is done though.

Even if you haven’t signed up on a Web site, sites can use cookies to track and target you while you move through various Web sites. Social Media Analytics is performed using information gathered from browsing patterns. These enable companies to monitor and improve brand loyalty, among other things. Newer, more creative ways are devised every day to reach you and persuade you to browse more, and buy more. If this bothers you, it won’t help much to blame the Web sites, advertisers or the ad companies. What you can do though, is go online and learn ways to reduce identity tracking. You can see which Web sites share information about you, and if this affects you in any way. What you do next is up to you!

(Tara is a second-year student of a Masters programme in English with Communication Studies at Christ University, Bangalore.)

Published on January 28, 2013
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