Many of my blog posts begin from a discussion on reddit and this one is no different. Reddit users get upvoted for hoping internet ad companies have an “agonizing” starvation of revenue to put them out of business. I can’t even begin to explain how ludicrous this statement is without writing a full-on article, so here we go.
What Are Ad Networks
Let’s start by drawing a line in the sand. I need to make it very clear what I’m defending here is not the practice of stealing and selling user’s information in ways done by the NSA. I’m also going to avoid the new usage of this practice by ISPs, the people who sell you your connection to the internet like Comcast or Verizon.
I’m strictly talking about company’s like adroll or google’s adwords or Facebook’s internal ad system. Let’s start small in explaining how these work.
Say your dad decided to take his lawn maintenance business of 20 years to the next level. Instead of the word of mouth around town that’s built his clientele he’s ready to add three new trucks, drivers and a half dozen team members. He wants to branch out into the surrounding counties and set the base to grow even bigger. Marketing is going to be key.
He hires a local agency, they set him up with a new logo, some branding standards, a website and… that’s right, digital ad management. This shit is vital to a business these days, small or large.
The agency will use their network or networks of choice to run your dad some advertisements. He has no fucking clue what’s happening but he’s seeing the results. Look at that, he’s got some “conversions” and starts generating new business.
Conversions: When a person visits a website, most websites have a conversion goal for that person. This means, they want the user to do something. This could be making a purchase, signing up for a newsletter, reading a certain amount of pages or anything they decide is the goal for their website.
The Ad Networks allow the agency, or even you if you want to do it yourself, to build out some ads, select the target audience, and press the start button. Typically these ads have
- A title: bolder, clickable headline ex: “Mac’s East Alabama Lawn Maintenance”
- A description: Short two or three lines text describing the link “With 20 years of customer loyalty we branch out into the entire East Alabama region offering our services.”
- Keywords: Some keywords you believe people might search that you’d like to see your ad show up on: “Lawn Maintenance, Grass Mowers, Established Businesses, Family Business” and so on.
Certain ads like banner ads let you have a picture attached and then there are far more options in the bigger providers like google adwords, stuff too complex to write out here.
The Ad Networks takes these ads and serve them through websites that CHOOSE to use that network to make money. These websites willingly install the ad network software to their website. Any website that has this ad network installed will have advertisements shown that the ad network thinks relate to their content and what their users would like to see. So Mac’s ad would maybe show up on a blog about lawn equipment or when people search google for “Lawn Service in East Alabama.”
Now the part that people are getting pissed off about. How the FUCK does Facebook know I love Bill Murray so much that they give me t-shirt ads with his face on them? Damn them sending me ads related to my interests!
Here’s how, it’s not complicated. It’s brilliant, but it’s not complicated. Simply put, you do things on the internet related to your interests. If the websites you visit use the same ad network that ad network records your interests. They then serve you ads based on those interests. You know that Bill Murray fan page you were on that had a big Facebook “LIKE THIS ARTICLE” button? Yea, they installed Facebook’s code there so Facebook knows you visited it. The website CHOSE to give Facebook access to it’s users. You CHOSE to visit that website AND have a Facebook account.
Your web browser, what you are reading this in right now (most likely), has a feature called cookies. Most of your favorite websites would not function correctly without cookies. They are a small text file that your browser creates. That’s right, YOUR browser creates it based on YOU requesting a website that sends instructions back to your browser. They say, “Hey, here’s our cookie recipe you should bake this so you can feed us these delicious information cookies next time you visit.” Your browser can say “fuck off, I’m not making your cookies” or it can make them. Let me draw that out more clearly:
THE REQUEST: You type in https://facebook.com into your web browser. This is called a request. You are REQUESTING Facebook to send you it’s website. Facebook doesn’t have to. It can see the request is coming from your computer and say, “Hey, fuck this guy, send him a big picture of a middle finger” and that’s their right! They can serve whatever the fuck they want to! But they wanna make money so they send back some really useful shit you wanna see.
THE RESPONSE: Say it’s your first time visiting Facebook, they notice they don’t have any records of you visiting before and so they send you the main registration/login page. You fill out the form with your information, click the I Agree to their terms and conditions (this is important), then click the register button. When you click this button you are making another request, this time it’s a request with information attached that YOU GAVE THEM.
This response sends your browser a bunch of code, code that developers like myself write. It says here’s all the stuff to show the user, here’s how to lay it out to look pretty and here’s some things to do behind the scenes to make it all work right. That behind the scenes stuff includes the cookie recipe. You don’t have to accept cookies, you can turn these off in any web browser’s settings. Maybe they should be opt-in (you must turn on instead of off) but that’s a different debate.
The cookie instructions tell your browser to create a text file containing this information and make sure it can only be read by this website that’s asking you to create it.
Typically the cookie says something like “This guy has logged in already don’t make him write his password and stuff again when he visits.” It will contain your unique user ID so it can log you in automatically. It does something else too …
Tracking! Spying! ESPIONAGE!
Some fucking reddit user actually said it’s espionage then copied the dictionary definition. What a blow-hard, entitled little shit. Let’s say you visit helpmylawnlookawesome.com and that website has installed google adwords so they can make some money serving ads to you. That website installs some cookies to your browser saying you’ve been there. Google Adwords makes a cookie too because that website installed them and said they could.
Then you find yourself on another website that also has google adwords installed so they can make some money, lawntips.com (Just the tips!). Well they both have google adwords so it can see that you’ve been to both websites and it might serve you an ad for helpmylawnlookawesome.com while you are on lawntips.com because it knows you’ve already been to that website once so you have some interest.
Even if you don’t have cookies turned on, every connection to the internet has a publicly available IP Address. This is like your mailing address in real life. It’s public, it’s always public. If you browse through a service that offers to hide your IP Address, guess what? That service can see your IP Address cause it’s public and you gave it to them by requesting their service.
It’s just some numbers like this 220.127.116.11. If you browse any website, any website on the internet, that website can see the request is coming from that address. You can’t mail a letter without a return address.
So when you decide to go to a website you are actively saying “Hi, it’s me, here’s my address will you return some content to it?” That’s all they get. They don’t get your name, they don’t get your child’s school, they don’t rent you fucking shoes, dude.
But if you give a website some of your information, or things you are interested in, that website has every right to record your IP Address along with the things you told it about you. If that website has an ad network installed, guess what. Yep, that ad network can store you IP Address along with that information. Then when you visit another site that has that network it has all your information from the other site because they BOTH USE THE SAME AD NETWORK.
This is how things magically appear relevant to you or from sites you visited on other websites. It’s not fucking espionage. It’s marketing, we’ve been doing it for centuries. If you collected all the mailed advertisements in the country you’d notice ads relevant to the population of a certain area are being sent. Old people neighborhoods get ads for hip replacements. That’s just how it works and has always worked. You wanna outlaw marketing? Be my guest but that’s gonna fuck up some serious balance of this day and age.
They Shouldn’t Share My Private Information
THEN STOP FUCKING GIVING IT TO THEM. You can turn off cookies, you can willingly not have a Facebook account, no one is making you create one! Also, no one fucking cares about you. They care about selling shit to you. It’s not like they are saying, “Oh, here’s Tom’s address, let’s go spy on his life and shit.” You’re not that important so get over yourself.
Free & Open
If you want to have a free and open internet that means people have the right to put ads on their website, they have the right to build systems that serve ads for the best return, they have the right to put whatever the FUCK they want on their websites.
And you have the right to block it! You can use an ad blocking system, though I think it kind of makes you an asshole, it’s your right! Hell, I use one for specific sites that bother the shit out of me with their ads (looking at you UltimateGuitar.com).
You know what’s really incredible? Facebook is always listening to the microphone of your cell phone. You gave it permission to do that when you accepted its terms while installing its app. You can uninstall it though, isn’t that a novel idea? Oh wait, you deserve to use their multi billion dollar to develop app for free with no strings attached. (No you don’t).
At the end of the day, calling it espionage is dumber than shit. You entitled little fuckers that do that are morons. And wishing agony on a business for trying to make money is like wishing a rainbow not to be a rainbow any more (I am the mango!).