An unscientific case study on being invisible to targeted advertising
Watching You Watching Them
In the mid-2000s, I was what was then known as a “special librarian,” which is to say I worked for a large company doing research on proprietary databases using platforms like MAID, Datastar, Ovid and Dialog. I was working for large, successful companies who showed their appreciation for my work by paying for me to go to conferences with my peers. This all ended in 2008, but I digress.
From early days, Special Library conferences were heavily sponsored by Search Engines. Yahoo, Excite, Ask Jeeves, Altavista and the like were purveyors of the Keys to Information, and many canvas bags. In the mid-2000s, a new name was showing up at our conferences, throwing around really expensive swag (at a librarian’s conference “really expensive” is entirely relative) and sponsoring lunches and even dinners. This new player, Google, was coming out of the barn with a ton of data science and user behavior information and talked to librarians like they care what we did. Which they did…so they could automate it and kill our profession. Another digression.
The point is that Google taught us how people viewed an Internet page, when advertisers were still looking at their marketing people and saying “I heard about this Internet thing on the radio this weekend, is it something we ought to know about?” (A real thing said to me in 2002 by the head of the Marketing team at the company I worked for at the time, when I had been using “the Internet” since 1992.)
Notice all that cold space on the right and bottom. Google understood that anything on the right was effectively blocked from any real attention for obvious reasons — English readers read left to right, top to bottom. If they give you an answer at the top, towards the left, you don’t get to the right or the bottom. Which is why Google and all other search engines put sponsored links on the top. Above the unpaid links. Kind of obvious, right?
In 2018, we have less attention and time than ever to spend on anything.
Notice the lack of eyeball tracking to right or downwards in the 2014 heatmap. People scan more, read less, jump over the sponsored links and images to top results, then move on.
So, what does this mean for us and Facebook Ads? Well, it means…
Ad blockers work well. Behavior blockers work better.
Facebook puts your feed in the middle of the page. Management is on the left, ads run down the right side of your Facebook page. If you put an ad blocker on that, you’ll see blank space. Sometimes. But I don’t have an ad blocker. How do I not get overwhelmed by ads? I don’t look at them.
Ads run down the right side of the page. There is little else on the right side of the page I need — birthdays, nope, pokes, prods, nope. “Your Pages”…nope. I literally never look at the right side of the page. Google taught me to do that in 2007. 11 years later, I still ignore the right side of the page on search engines, portals, social media and other corporate comfy sofas. I know that my home page and/or profiles are in the top right corner of nearly every site in existence and everything below that is irrelevant.
So that explains why I don’t see Facebook ads. But here we get to the slightly more complicated bit — how does Facebook not see me?
I am female, in a age grouping likely to shop and I shop almost exclusively online. I buy clothes online, as many women do and, most importantly for this essay, I am not 100% invisible to the shadow stalkers of Facebook. Several winters ago I was in the market for a generator. I did not ultimately purchase one, but the one I bookmarked followed me around the Internet for a while like a stray dog, hoping to be taken home.
But I do not see…weight loss programs and underwear or clothing ads (I did have a fetching pair of Doc Marten’s that kept popping up on my feed for a while) or surgery or dental or other intrusive “YOU ARE IMPERFECT” ads women tell me they get. So, what’s the trick?
There is no trick. I don’t click links to articles on weight loss or wrinkle cream or underwear. I have never done that. I shop for what appears to the algorithm to be mostly my husband’s clothes (I don’t have a husband, those cargo pants are for me) and my entertainment buying is that of a 9 year old boy…or a 50-something lesbian into animation. Facebook’s algorithm cannot cope with the idea that I simply have no interest in the things it wants to sell me.
Oh, wait, there is a trick.
My browsers are set to wipe cookies whenever I shut the browser down. Facebook has no idea where I have been. It doesn’t know what I shopped for beyond today. I clear my history. Sure, yes, that means sometimes I cannot find that thing from the other day, but it’s pretty rare and I pathologically bookmark emails and links and things (and put them in folders, take that, Google!)
It also doesn’t have ads that coincide to the things I talk about on Facebook. Books, animation, Japan, politics, food, drink. From Facebook’s perspective, this account is clearly three separate people, none of which are of legal age, except the old grumpy one who doesn’t buy shit.) That’s not a trick and unless you just have really obscure tastes, you can’t replicate it. Don’t bother. I’m just lucky that I don’t watch/buy/care about easily marketable things, like weight loss and wrinkle cream.
As a result, of my non-marketable tastes, my refusal to click or even look at stuff they show me, the ads in my side bar are (checking, brb) “Recommended for You Nearby” things I do not need from places that aren’t “nearby.” Hey thanks, if I need a used SUV in a different state, I’ll be sure to…no…no, I won’t.
Google taught me how to not see ads on Facebook, and Facebook’s brilliant targeted algorithms taught themselves how to not see me. It’s a very healthy relationship and I recommend it strongly.