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Online Advertising Overview

If you’ve ever used a search engine, read the news online, or used a social networking site, you’ve surely seen them. If you’ve shopped, played games, or watched videos on the Web, you couldn’t avoid them. Millions upon millions of them get served to Internet users across the globe everyday. We’re talking about ads. From blinking monkeys to simple text, advertisements adorn commercial Web sites of every variety. Online advertising has fueled the growth of content online, allowing consumers to have access to an unprecedented wealth of free sites, services, and information.

The advertising industry has always been data-hungry. It makes sense: the more advertisers know about you, the better they should be at showing you ads you’ll respond to, right? That’s why it has traditionally been so important for advertisers to understand the audiences of certain television programs and publications. If they know that a new high school drama series or a magazine full of glossy celebrity photos is attracting teens, they’ll save those retirement planning ads for another time.

With the advent of the Internet and phenomenal growth in computer processing and storage capacity, advertisers believe they have an opportunity to collect and analyze unprecedented loads of data to help them target their ads. Advertisers hope that the Internet can take the guesswork out of ad targeting: according to this theory, advertisers can now obtain a highly detailed view of Internet users’ interests by analyzing their online searches, Web surfing behavior, and the information they post online about themselves. From the advertiser’s perspective, the Internet is a veritable gold mine.

In reality, the value of precisely targeted ads is yet unproven. The Internet’s most successful advertising model still doesn’t target individuals. "Contextual" advertising, which is often used to generate ads alongside search results, matches ads to the content of the page that you’re currently viewing. If you’re on a sports Web site and you see ads for golf clubs or baseball tickets, those are probably contextual ads. In contextual advertising, what matters is the content of the Web page being viewed, not any information about the person viewing it.

On the other hand, "behavioral" advertising (also commonly known as "behavioral targeting") does depend on the interests of individual Internet users. Behavioral advertisers build profiles of individual Internet users over time based on the things they do online. They then use these profiles for ad targeting. So if you visit a few different travel sites, the profile that the advertiser keeps about you might note your interest in travel. If you later visit a news site, you might see a behaviorally targeted travel ad on the news page, even if the page has nothing to do with travel.

With all of this data collection and analysis comes increased concern over individual privacy. If advertisers are collecting so much detailed data about you, how is that data protected? How easy is it to tie that data back to your name or your email address? What are they doing with the data, and who are they sharing it with? Do you have a way to say "no, thanks" to the data collection? Most Internet users are unaware of the scope of data collection for online advertising, so they may not even know to ask these questions. This Web site seeks to provide some answers.