PSA: Avoid Online Advertising By Changing Your Settings

My name is Jess, and I’m an online shopaholic. Well, not exactly, but mildly shopaholic maybe. And if you’re like me, you want to reduce the amount of online advertising you’re exposed to. Have you had the scenario where you’ve been stalking a product, managed to talk yourself out of it, and decisively closed the tab; then a few days later, you open up your Instagram for some mindless relaxation, and in that moment of weakness, the same product is staring you in the face?

This happened to me way too many times. I want products to be out of sight, so they’ll be out of mind. The less I can be reminded of potentially buy-able products, the better. But these pesky ads kept following me around different websites, different devices, and different apps. Please, I don’t want to see cashmere wraps in my Facebook! No Birkenstocks in my Instagram!

So I did a bit of research and asked some particularly tech-savvy friends. Happily, there are ways to limit targeted advertising and ads following you from desktop to mobile. Below is a list of the main things that I did, and since then I haven’t seen any targeted ads following me around (YMMV, of course). All of this information is already on the web, but I couldn’t find a master list, so I’ve compiled one here. I’ve ordered them roughly by importance.

Note that you will still see ads. You are using these websites/apps for “free”, so they have to make money somehow. But the ads will be more generic (e.g., in Instagram, it’ll be based on who you follow, not based on products you previously browsed). This less-targeted advertising has helped me reduce the temptation for online shopping.

Facebook / Instagram

Since Facebook owns Instagram, they can share advertising information between those two apps, if you’ve linked them. And Facebook can track (some of) your browsing history using cookies they leave on your computer (through the little “Share on Facebook” widgets embedded on many websites). This was one of the most annoying ads for me because they seemed particularly targeted. I would be browsing something on Nordstrom’s website, and then the product would show up in my Instagram feed nearly right away.

  1. Log into Facebook.
  2. In the upper right, click on “Settings”.
  3. On the left sidebar, click on “Ads”.
  4. Change your settings to disallow ads from partners, disallow ads based on other Facebook companies, and disallow ads based on your social actions.Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 12.43.29 PM.png

Google

Google is one of the biggest ad players and has a huge ad network with AdWords. You can turn off personalized ads in the Google settings.

  1. Go to Google’s ad settings.
  2. Disable ad personalization.Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 12.56.22 PM.png

A big problem for advertisers is how to link up your browsing history on your computer and on your phone. To help solve this, Google uses a unique ID identify you across your different devices. This step may not be strictly necessary, but if you’re already cleaning up your ad settings, why not make it harder for them to identify you?

  1. On your Android phone, go to Settings > Google > Ads. If you’re using an iPhone, try these instructions.
  2. Tap “Reset advertising ID” and “Opt out of Ads Personalization”

Screenshot_20180722-143618 (1).png

Browser

Turning off cookies in the browser makes life a little harder for advertisers to track you across websites. This step will result in a lot of requests for two-step authentication (i.e., asking for a texted/emailed code) for banking websites, though, since your cookies will be cleared fairly often. To me, that’s OK, because that also helps make your online banking a little more secure.

  1. In Google Chrome, go to the Settings page. If you’re using another browser, try these instructions for Internet Explorer or Safari.
  2. Search for “cookies”.
  3. Click on Content settings > Cookies.
  4. Change the settings to allow sites to save and read cookie data, keep local data only until you quit your browser, and block third-party cookies. Third-party cookies are usually those set by advertisers and trackers (as opposed to first-party cookies, which are usually set by the website you’re visiting, e.g., cnn.com)Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 2.33.53 PM.png
  5. I also suggest deleting the existing cookies so that you can start afresh. Search for “cookies”, then click on Clear Browsing Data > Clear Data.
    Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 5.15.54 PM.png
  6. Optional: Search for “track” and enable Do Not Track. This asks websites not to track your browsing history, although it’s doubtful whether they actually obey this or not.Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 5.15.26 PM.png

Ghostery

Even if you’ve cleaned out your cookies and prevented websites from setting new third-party cookies, a few might slip through the cracks. Ghostery is a plugin that was recommended by my colleague who’s an expert in Internet security. It basically works by preventing information from going out of your computer to some known tracking companies.

You can see an example below, where visiting the Refinery 29 website resulted in 28 different trackers attempting to communicate my information. Compared to something more benign like WordPress, where I’m currently typing this, which only has 2 tracker attempts.

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 5.04.56 PM.png

Ghostery is a very comprehensive plugin though, and it did break a few websites for me at first. But once I figured out which essential trackers to re-enable, everything is smooth.

  1. Download and install the Ghostery plugin.
  2. If you visit certain websites and find some of the content is missing (e.g., reviews and comments), you may need to enable some of them. For me, I had to re-enable BazaarVoice (product reviews), Disqus (uhhh blog comments!), Spot.IM (Refinery29 Money Diary comments – I know you read’em! 🙂 )

AdChoices

This is an opt-in program set up by some of the big advertising companies. I’m not sure how well the companies actually abide by this, but since it’s free to enroll, why not? They basically set a new cookie on your browser that tells advertisers not to track you.

  1. Go to the AdChoices website.
  2. Follow their instructions. You may need to allow AdChoices to place one third-party cookie to let advertisers know you preferences.

Google Maps

Ok, this last one isn’t very ad-related, but Google Maps tracking my location just creeps the heck out of me. If it creeps you out too, here are the steps to disable it.

  1. Go to Google’s activity controls.
  2. Pause the location history!

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 1.01.34 PM.png

Conclusion

I hope that list was helpful! I guess I’m pretty paranoid about online tracking, but I don’t like the idea of companies tracking what I do online and shop for. I don’t mind seeing ads, but the fewer relevant ads I can see, the better. Ideally, I would happily pay say $100/month to avoid seeing any ads at all on the Internet; but the current Internet business model is mainly ad-supported, so that isn’t happening any time soon. Which is fine, as there has to be some means for content creators to be be paid for their work; but I would prefer the ads to be a little less targeted, similar to traditional, non-digital advertising. If the ad companies provide settings to enable these preferences, why not utilize them?

Were these steps helpful? How do you feel about online tracking and privacy? Do you get creeped out by online ads following you around?

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