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What do Google and Facebook Know About You?

social media - what do Google and Facebook know about you - Alpha Digital
Samantha Coates
Samantha is currently studying a dual degree of Business Management (Majoring in marketing) and Information Technology at the University of Queensland. When she’s not studying or working Sam can be found scrolling through Instagram at a coffee shop and catching up with friends.

Have you ever wondered how much Google and Facebook know about you? Clearly they know a lot about you as you receive targeted ads on Facebook and Google that are relevant to you. The question on everyone’s lips is: How do they know what my interests are and how are they delivering me these ads?!

What is happening?

In 2012 Facebook implemented a feature called Facebook ad exchange (FBX) that tracks users’ web activity through cookies. In case you were unaware, you have a number of cookies and other tracking agents in your internet browser. Cookies are text files that contain a range of information that your browser saves each time you visit a website. It saves information about your specific website session and can be used to store passwords and usernames. Additionally, cookies can be used to identify users (by saving your age, gender, marital status, occupations, etc.), store shopping cart information and prepare customised web pages to utilize user information (e.g. loading the Australian version of the website rather than the American version because you specified that in an earlier session). During a users’ web surf session on Google, cookies will gather information about what they have searched for. Once the user logs into their Facebook account, they will be targeted with highly relevant ads that are aimed to remind them and prompt a revisit to a site they were previously on, or show them ads with similar products.

Everyone who uses the internet will have hundreds of cookies and other forms of tracking tools analysing their activity online. This raises privacy concerns for a lot of users because the majority of people aren’t even aware that this is happening.

Is this allowed?

In short. Yes. According to the Cookie Law (yes it’s a real law), cookies are not allowed to store any identifying information about a user. This means that site owners who implement cookies on their website are only able to track the activity of users and retarget them with that information instead of any personal information. Cookies that do track identity are used for login functions or saved data on a particular website that you have allowed to happen. (e.g. “Do you want Chrome to save this password?”)

Would you like to save password Google Chrome popup - Alpha Digital

By law, any website using cookies to track user behaviour must ask users for their consent before tracking information and saving it.

Cookies acceptance statement - Alpha Digital

Why are site owners and marketers using this information?

Targeted advertising is a powerful marketing tool and using cookies is the easiest way for marketers and website owners to deliver relevant content to you. Let’s look at an example of how this works.

Imagine you are looking for a party venue in Brisbane for your big birthday bash. On Google you search “Party venues Brisbane”. You browse through a number of websites until you find the perfect location for your party…Cloudland. You spend some time on the Cloudland website, looking at the venue hire cost, and various other prices. You decide to enquire on the Cloudland site. Next you go on to Facebook to tell your mates about this cool venue you have found and alas, you see an advert on your Facebook page for Cloudland, and a number of other ads for other party venues in Brisbane.

Marketers have been using your browser cookies to analyse your activity and have developed an advertisement profile that suits your needs. As you searched the web for the best venue to hold your party, the information that the cookies gathered is collated and analysed to deliver more relevant and targeted ads to you.

How can I get around this?

If you do want to opt out of this technology and stop marketers from retargeting you with ads on Facebook, you can turn off these “interest-based ads” in your Facebook settings. This will not stop Facebook showing you ads, it will just stop showing you ads on your Facebook from the searches you made on Google.

Cookies are incredibly powerful marketing tools and based on your activity online can deliver you advertisements that are highly targeted and relevant to you. So next time you are on Facebook and see an ad that is related to what you were just searching on Google, you know it’s because cookies have been tracking your activity.