Snooping on the snoopersby@babulous
355 reads
355 reads

Snooping on the snoopers

by SK BabuNovember 16th, 2017
Read on Terminal Reader
Read this story w/o Javascript
tldt arrow

Too Long; Didn't Read

Having worked in advertising for a bit, I have been curious about the rapid evolution of its online avatar. Somewhere along the way, I figured out I could learn a lot more if I let myself be a guinea pig for the online advertisers to test their ads.

Companies Mentioned

Mention Thumbnail
Mention Thumbnail
featured image - Snooping on the snoopers
SK Babu HackerNoon profile picture

Having worked in advertising for a bit, I have been curious about the rapid evolution of its online avatar. Somewhere along the way, I figured out I could learn a lot more if I let myself be a guinea pig for the online advertisers to test their ads.

Now if I was mafia don, I wouldn’t like to be tracked online or offline. But I’m just a regular guy with nothing much to hide. So it’s no big deal, provided I don’t do silly stuff like giving out my bank password to some spelling-challenged Nigerian pretending to be Bill Gates.

Accordingly I have been letting Google, Amazon and a few other websites track my activities on the net. Actually I don’t have to do much, as they make it easy to let myself be tracked. Basically I just have to stay signed in to my Google account on my browser or app, and accept cookies, or whatever.

The bots are tracking me

For instance, I have let Google Maps keep track of me on my phone. Now Google is magnanimous enough to share this info with me, which I can do by simply checking my Google history. Let’s say if I type in Aug 17, 2016, I will find that the bot has recorded my five-hour road trip across the desert Emirate of UAE on that particular day. Impressive!

‘I know where you went yesterday’ — Google

This tidbit of info wouldn’t have been of much use to Google. So I decided to probe a bit deeper. Maybe do a kind of reverse engineering. Like observe the ads Google is serving me, and then work out why.

The ads Google targets at me

Accordingly I fired up my Google app on my Android, and went through my news feed. One of the article headers mentioned that Bill Gates is in India. I clicked on the article, and scrolled down to see what ads had been specifically targeted at me. Here are the three ads that popped up in the article.

The ads that popped up in my browser that was signed in to my Google account

The Good

The first ad that caught my eye in the article was for a lithium battery powered electric bike. This kind of mindreading is exactly what makes me a supporter of sharing data with Google. Let me explain just how awesome this is. (Skip the next three paragraphs if you aren’t that into electric bikes.)

I have been an evangelist for electric bikes and have owned one for the last six years. One major drawback with the current electric bikes in India is the battery. It’s just a slightly better version of the car battery, and not really ideal for an electric scooter. Top speed drops as the charge runs out, and the bike speed can be reduced to almost a crawl. The battery is expensive to replace, barely lasts 18 months, and its range drops alarmingly as the battery gets older. It’s also bulky and heavy, which adds a lot of weight to the bike, and makes it difficult to remove the battery to charge it. And finally, it takes forever to charge.

So last year when I had to my bike’s battery replaced, I was desperate to get a lithium battery. They last for almost 5 years, are lighter, can be taken out and charged to 50% in half an hour, and bike speed doesn’t reduce as the battery power runs out. In fact, I was willing to pay three times as much because these batteries last nearly three times as long. However my dealer just could not source it, and so I had settle for the same old tech.

So you can imagine my surprise when out of the blue, an ad pops up saying a lithium battery bike is available in India. It was almost as if the bot had read my mind, searched the internet for what I wanted, and then passed me the info. To some, this would seem creepy but not to me. In fact, I who never click ever on online ads, clicked on that ad, and was delighted with what I found at the end of the click, which in a nutshell was the bike battery of my dreams.

To the uninitiated, this may seem like magic. But in reality, Google simply dredged through my search history, and figured out I was interested in electric bikes, and served up the ad. A little search through my Google activity confirmed that a few days earlier (Nov 14), I had been searching for electric bikes. In fact, those tabs were still open in my iPhone’s Safari browser.

Use my search history to serve me ads on what I was looking for

After all these years of serving me ads that I studiously ignored, Google’s persistence was finally rewarded. I finally clicked on an ad, was taken to the advertiser’s website where I avidly went through every juicy detail. I was convinced enough by it to put this bike from Hero on my short list… I plan upgrade to a lithium bike after my current bike’s battery dies some time next year. In fact, I willingly filled up the data form, and sent Hero my personal details, and even asked for more details about the bike.

Google knows what I want

This is exactly what I was hoping would happen when I decided to share my data with Google. It’s a classic Win-Win for everyone.

Google is happy as it gets paid by the advertiser. The advertiser is happy with Google for finding a customer who would click on their ad, read diligently every page of their website, show interest in buying a bike costing around ₹100000 ($1500), and even willingly gave them my contact details. And I am happy to learn that I may finally get that lithium battery powered bike that I have long been looking for.

The Bad

Moving on, the second ad in the article was for a pair of sandals from Amazon. I had put the sandals in my shopping cart, but I did not buy it. So Amazon is trying to remind me with this ad. What Amazon doesn’t know is that I later purchased the same sandals directly from the store. So the ad is pointless.

But there’s a more interesting question. How does Amazon know that the person shopping for sandals on Amazon on a computer is the same person who is reading this post on a Google app, on an iPhone, many days later.

Well, the link is my email ID. The email ID I use on Amazon is the same gmail with which I’m signed in on the Android and my iPhone. Basically, Google gets my email ID from Amazon, and then tells them that I’m the same person who is reading the Bill Gate article, and so this would be an apt place and time to pop in a reminder to me to buy the sandals.

The googly is that neither Amazon nor Google are aware of my offline purchase, which means I’m no longer a potential customer. This means Amazon has wasted its money on the ad. I’m sure Google would have charged Amazon a premium for such precise targeting of customers.

Good for Google. Bad for Amazon.

The Ugly

The third ad was one of those obnoxious ads that beg for an ad blocker.

Why don’t I have an option to say I don’t ever want to see this?

Really, Google? I have a full head of hair. In fact, hair loss does not run in my family. On second thoughts, I don’t think Google is responsible for this, beyond the fact that a link to the Bill Gates post appeared in my Google feed. In fact, there are no ads in the Google feed as of now, and it is based on how I customise it with the topics that I’m interested in.

My guess is the marketer was willing to pay the news publisher, TOI (Times of India), for placing this ad, as it has a high probability of clicks with males above 30, or something like that.

In defence of unpaid writers

We all know the publishing industry is in a crisis. Readers who used to pay for offline newspapers and magazines are migrating online. Unfortunately, they show a distinct reluctance to pay for whatever they read, probably because there’s a plethora of free news sites.

I must admit I’m one of these readers. But deep down, I know I wouldn’t like it either if people expected me to write for free. To assuage my guilt to a small extent, I have continued subscribing to TOI’s print edition. I also pay Medium’s membership fee, as I write here. My local library membership is paid up too, but it’s a tenuous relationship.

When reading migrates online

I agree that’s not much, but something’s better than nothing.

Opening the door for Ad Blockers

If the publishing industry is in a soup now, it’s because they misused their power over readers to swamp them with garish ads and pop ups that obscured whole pages and made viewing the content difficult. In some cases, you couldn’t even close the pop ups. It’s precisely this kind of greed and lack of consideration for the reader that led to the invention of the adblocker.

News sites like TOI are shooting themselves in their own foot by allowing these ‘hair-loss’ kind of ads for a few dollars. Ok, it’s not as ugly as the full page, multicoloured close up, badly shot photos of bald heads that once used to pop up in my face. But it’s still offensive enough to make me use an ad blocker.

In fact, these days I often switch from a browser that allows ads, to the Safari browser on my Mac or iPhone (with AdBlock on the former and Refine on the latter). That gives me a reading experience free of such intrusive ads. Here’s the same Bill Gates article on my phone with the ad obliterated.

My adblocker at work

This is why ad blocker apps are being downloaded in such huge numbers, and worsening the publishing industry crisis.

News that isn’t news

Having said that, this news provider has already figured out a solution for ad blockers. Look what I found when I scrolled down the page.

Ads disguised as content

The advertiser and news provider have collaborated to come up with a section labelled ‘From around the web.’ This cleverly implies it’s news, without ever actually stating so.

All three articles are actually ads disguised as news content. The first ad is for a show on Amazon Prime. The second, with its badly photoshopped ‘before & after’ images, is most probably for a weight loss drug (I refuse to click it). The third is our old friend ‘10 days Hair Oil’ who has cleverly used a different photo and headline to avoid looking like the ad in the same article.

Facebook also seems to have worked out how to counter adblockers, and claims to have increased ad revenue. But such brute force won’t work with everyone. I had a simple solution. I stopped using Facebook, except once a twice a month, and just for a couple of minutes, each time. I’m not missing it.

Makings ads acceptable

The thing is there’s been research that proves people who use adblockers are tech savvy, and see a lot less ads. This ironically makes them a lot more likely to interact with ads, than the non-adblock users. My clicking on Hero’s lithium ad would sort of reinforce this argument, I guess.

So the smart marketers are trying other approaches. Like I don’t mind ads as long as they are discreet and maybe even honest, and that may be why I visit the tech site, Lifehacker. These guys have ads but they display them in a way discreetly. What’s even better is that they label the ads as ads.

Discreet ads

Another approach is the ad-block wall. You are allowed to see content on the website only if you disable the adblocker. I usually refuse to disable the adblocker, and instead go elsewhere to find the same content without ads. And I’m not the only one.

However this approach does work with me if the site asks me nicely, and has decent content. Time Magazine is a good example. They appeal to my conscience with a creative approach that says “You broke Time by blocking ads.” That made me a smile, and I disabled the adblocker. The page displayed two large ads which I could ignore if I chose to. That’s an acceptable truce.

Time Magazine’s creative request to unblock ads

Adblocking is expected to cost the publishing industry $20 billion by 2020. If more sites came up with approaches that make ads more palatable, the online ad industry wouldn’t be collapsing the way it is.

Delinking my data to avoid tracking

Logically, if I wished to avoid precise targeting by companies for whatever reason, then I should just sign out of Google on my browser. To confirm this, I signed in on my alternate gmail ID via the Chrome browser on my iPhone. This account only knows my name, age, gender, has no connection with my Amazon identity, and has not been used by me to search for electric bikes.

I then revisited the Bill Gates article on TOI. Sure enough, the Amazon ad promptly disappears, and so does the lithium battery ad.

So will the article be left with empty ad slots? No such luck!

Empty flights sell cheap tickets

Like airline seats in an empty flight, all the ad slots in the article seem to have been sold off at bargain prices to the highest bidder, which in this case is our old hair-challenged friend.

Hang on, be warned before scrolling down any further.

This is bad, ugly bad.

The ad appears an amazing four times in that one article. First as a proper ad in the article and simultaneously as a little banner at the bottom with the same model. There are two more versions of the ad at the bottom of the article. These are thinly disguised as news articles, feature different models, and even feature different propositions, with one positioned as an Ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) company. Any which way to get the customer seems to be their motto.

Besides, a second company also seems to have got on the hair loss bandwagon. All in all, it looks like online hair loss treatment is a lucrative market.

Do they seriously expect me to put up with this garbage?

I’m sure you must also be sick of such gross ads. I sure have had enough of the Times of India (TOI) website. These ads feel a lot like those omnipresent ads about a certain body part enlargement that once flooded the net. This may be why TOI has been aptly nicknamed the ‘Toilet-paper of India.’

I have grimly resolved if I ever have to check out a news article on the TOI site, I will use my mobile Safari browser with ad blocker enabled. If TOI insists on my disabling the ad blocker, I won’t, and will go elsewhere for the news.

Snoop bots can be helpful

Despite my distaste at being swamped by unappetising shots of bald heads at TOI, I’m happy overall at the deal I stuck with Google to share my data with them in return for free use of their services. In fact, Google’s bots once helped me avoid missing a flight by warning me it was due to leave at 5 am while I was under the impression it was leaving at 5 pm.

In other words, I approve of being snooped on. That might come back to bite me so I reserve the right to change my mind, and that’s fine too.

As some wise guy cracked, “The only thing that’s constant is change.”