The next time I visit this website there will be an extra one in the column of returning visitors. And if they did their work right, this is not really a question if, but more likely when, since there is so much effort being put in trying to reel me back in and to convince me of making that magical purchase. Bonus points for returning trough an advertisement later on.
Surfing this website feels like it knows me – we’ve become such best buds the last time I visited. I guess we exchanged some numbers and I let it place a cookie on my computer. Like a mini-passport I carry around on the web. Whenever the website thinks of me, I get a nice reminder in shape of that product I was initially looking at. Now every website I visit shows me an advertisement for this product. Maybe it knows I’m still undecided. Maybe it likes to haunt me. It kind of makes me feel bad for even thinking about buying from another site.
Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs
It’s not a big secret that the internet runs on ads. Without it a lot of brilliant companies would not exist today. Thankfully we’ve come a long way since there were annoying animated flash banners shouting at us with things we don’t need. Savvy programmers are developing the smartest methods for targeting suitable advertisements to us. It’s actually quite interesting to know what they can and cannot track these days. This can be a daunting thought because how do they know what I like? By using a sophisticated algorithm, they know. Because it’s not only that I was on this website and looked at that product like a tracking beam they know what kind of websites I visited when the advertisement was presented to me. They know (vaguely) what that site is about and with that information a profile is being gathered about me with the sole purpose of showing better advertisements catered to my preferences. Each website I visit adds information to a specific category to which matching ads will be more likely to be presented to me. It works so well, I don’t even mind that I get shown more advertisements for tech and design products then perfume and diapers.
Beyond my preferences
Facebook uses the above method to track which pages you are visiting using all the websites that have a “like” button installed to build an even better profile of you and give you better targeted advertisements. They can reach beyond their own platform to find out what you like, without actually “liking” anything.
The big players are investing millions of dollars to collect information and build anonymous profiles based on a simple cookie. Thus they can decide for themselves if I’m a right candidate for the ad and even if I’m a person worth targeting and what to charge me for the product they want to sell.
A complete profile tells the advertiser more than just my preference for technology and design. It can tell if I am likely to purchase more expensive goods or if I’m looking to save a few bucks. It’s all there.
Me surfing around the web using a Safari browser on an iPad tells them that I might be more keen to spend some extra money on the same product than a user using Firefox or Google Chrome (Users of Apple products “generally” don’t mind spending a few extra bucks whereas Firefox users tend to think a bit more critical and I guess Internet Explorer users generally don’t bother with alternative options). Collecting data from your surfing behavior gives out more information about who you are and how you make decisions. When the advertiser knows you to be an easy spender and that you are willing to spend extra money on a luxury item like an iPad, you might be more likely to be presented with a higher price tag on those airline tickets you were looking for.
Question the prices
So if you really want to know if you are getting a good deal, there are a few ways of “playing” with this method. Airline companies are especially notorious for using this personal data to change prices based on the specific user. So just as a test: the next time you are planning to purchase airline tickets, skip the iPad. Use your computer. Delete your cookies and open the same website with a few different browsers. Chances are you might be able to save a few bucks.