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How Ads are Following Us Everywhere


Joanna Yuen

Marketing & Content Specialist - 12 Apr, 2024


Do you ever feel like somebody's watching you? The incredibly catchy 1984 one-hit-wonder may have been on to something. It’s why nearly every site you visit will ask if you accept cookies. It’s also why you receive highly targeted ads, even if you haven’t searched for a specific product just yet.

We all know by now that the internet is much more in-tune with our activity than ever before. People are generally used to cookies that help sites to identify you to improve your user experience. In fact, without them, the online world as we know it wouldn’t exist. With each new click, we share more information about ourselves with…someone. But just who is collecting our data, and how are they doing it? In this post, we are exploring just how ads follow us everywhere online (and what you can do if that makes you uncomfortable).

The Necessary World of Online Advertising

The digital world that we’ve all come to know and love couldn’t exist without advertising. In fact, the economics of using the internet (and the data available there) to market to consumers are massive. Internet users are generally accustomed to seeing these ads, even though in some ways they might seem unsettling. We’ve all had the experience of shopping for something and then receiving an ad for that item on a completely unrelated site. How do they know? How is that happening?

The truth is that online advertising is essential for supporting websites and paying for things like web hosting, developers, and designers. Websites don’t simply pay for themselves! Though they can be really helpful in reminding you about products that you were interested in, they can also add to clutter and many people even find them intrusive.

The general strategy of advertising to internet users with ads that follow them is called behavioral retargeting, or remarketing. It’s a tactic that enables marketers to display ads elsewhere if a person looks at a product but doesn’t buy it right then, in the hopes that they will be reminded to eventually complete the transaction. It’s an effort to target individuals that have already shown interest in a product. This makes sense because instead of broadly blasting ads to random people, retargeting connects with people who show interest in the hopes that they’ll complete a purchase. Any marketer knows that this targeted strategy will be more effective than a wider campaign with no particular audience in mind. Businesses that use retargeting techniques have an advantage over those that don’t. For example, if you are researching laptops, and you go to a dozen different websites to see what you want, the brand that uses ad remarketing might show you the laptop once more later in the day, after you’re done looking. Now that you’ve seen this particular product more than once, your interest may be sparked again, and you might even attach more credibility to that brand. In many cases, a company might give you a coupon code or some type of incentive to encourage you to pick their product vs. others. Even a small discount can go a long way with a reminder to usher people further into the sales cycle and maybe even convert.

It’s quite a fascinating process and has really impacted not only the way that people shop online but also how companies advertise. All of this is made possible through a delightful bit of technology called cookies.

Related Post: Should You Accept Browser Cookies? Hint: Not Always


How Cookies Work - A Refresher

You likely know most of this by now, but it can’t hurt to gain a deeper understanding of how the internet works.

Cookies are small text files that websites send to your browser when you visit them. These files are stored on your computer or device and help the website remember information about your visit, such as your preferences and login details.

When you visit a website, it may send a cookie to your browser. Your browser then stores the cookie on your computer or device. The next time you visit the same website, your browser sends the cookie back to the website. This allows the website to recognize you and remember your preferences.

Cookies have various functions online. They can be used to remember your login information, store your shopping cart items, personalize your browsing experience, track website usage, and serve targeted advertisements. Essentially, this is the way that ads are able to “follow” you online.

It's important to note that cookies can only store information that you provide or that the website collects while you are visiting. They cannot access other files on your computer or device. Additionally, you have control over cookies and can manage them through your browser settings.

In addition to applying user behavior to advertising, cookies can improve the user experience and have a few other functions. Cookies are normally used for these purposes:

Session management

Cookies can store session information, such as login status or user preferences, allowing the website to remember these settings during a browsing session. This enhances usability by eliminating the need for users to repeatedly enter their login credentials or customize their preferences.


Cookies can be used to personalize the website experience based on user preferences and behavior. By storing information about a user's past interactions or choices, the website can provide tailored content, recommendations, or suggestions. This improves usability by delivering more relevant and engaging content.

Website analytics

Cookies can collect anonymous data about how visitors interact with the website. This information, such as the pages visited, time spent on each page, or actions taken, can be analyzed to gain insights into user behavior and preferences. By understanding user patterns, website owners can optimize their content, layout, and navigation, resulting in improved usability.

Performance optimization

Cookies can be utilized to optimize website performance. For example, they can store information about the user's internet connection speed or device capabilities. This allows the website to deliver appropriate content and adjust its performance accordingly, ensuring a faster and smoother browsing experience.

Shopping cart management

Cookies can store information about items added to a shopping cart, allowing users to continue shopping or return to their cart later without losing their selections. This improves usability by simplifying the shopping experience and reducing friction.

Related Post: How to Clear, Accept, and Manage Browser Cookies


The Latest Cookie Concerns

As with most technology advancements, there is a positive side to cookies (such as improved performance, time savings, and convenience) - as well as a negative. In recent years, there have been increased concerns around privacy and security, and cookies are at the center of the debate.

Many people have expressed a desire for more control over their online privacy and a desire to limit or prevent being followed online. Here are some of the current concerns associated with cookies:

  • Privacy - One of the main issues is the potential invasion of privacy. Cookies can track users' online activities, including websites visited, searches made, and preferences. This data can be used for targeted advertising, profiling, or even sold to third parties without users' explicit consent.
  • User consent - Many people have worries about the lack of transparency and control over cookies. Websites often use cookies by default without explicitly informing users or obtaining their consent. This can lead to a sense of being tracked without knowledge or choice. In the current internet landscape, website owners have gotten a lot better about informing people about the use of cookies (and there are increased regulations about what they need to tell people), so users are generally more aware of how cookies are being used.
  • Security risks -  Unfortunately, cookies can be exploited by malicious actors to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information, such as login credentials or personal data. This can lead to identity theft, fraud, or other security breaches. For ideas on other ways to save time logging in and out without making more data vulnerable, make sure to read on about using Shift.
  • Cross-site tracking - Cookies can be used to track users across different websites, enabling the creation of detailed profiles and behavioral targeting. This raises concerns about the collection and sharing of personal information without users' knowledge or control.
  • Ad-blocking and cookie tracking prevention - As knowledge about cookies and privacy have grown, many users have turned to ad-blocking software or browser extensions that block or limit cookies and other tracking technologies. This poses challenges for website owners and content providers who rely on cookies for personalization, analytics, and targeted advertising. For several years, marketers had a plethora of data available from third-party applications. As people have become more informed on cookies, and new best practices and regulations have been put into place, marketers need to turn to other ways of obtaining user data and tracking. This means some of the marketing avenues that were once available are no longer practical, so digital advertisers need to come up with new and innovative ways to acquire and use data.

Overall, people's concerns about cookies and online tracking stem from a desire for more control over their personal data and the protection of their privacy online. In response to these concerns, there have been efforts to improve privacy practices and regulations. For example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in the US have introduced stricter rules regarding the use of cookies and user consent.

Generally speaking, people have come to expect more transparency online. Users now know to look for messages like “This website uses cookies to improve your experience. Please accept cookies.” It’s a good practice for marketers to let users know when cookies are being used and even give them the opportunity to customize their options.

That being said, this increase in transparency and privacy comes with a few downsides. Without cookies that follow you, you may notice a different user experience. Though there is an impact to users, much of the impact applies to website owners and marketers. Some of the consequences of reduced cookies - for better or worse - are:

  • Ad revenue loss - Ad-blocking software prevents the display of ads on websites, which directly impacts website owners' ability to generate revenue from advertising. With fewer ads being shown, the potential for ad clicks and conversions decreases, leading to a decline in ad revenue.
  • Reduced personalization - Cookies play a crucial role in personalizing website content and experiences for users. They enable features like remembering user preferences, saving shopping carts, and providing tailored recommendations. When users block or delete cookies, these personalization features may not work as intended, resulting in a less customized user experience.
  • Difficulty in measuring metrics -  Cookies are commonly used for website analytics, tracking user behavior, and measuring advertising effectiveness. When users block cookies, it becomes challenging to collect accurate data on website traffic, user demographics, and conversion rates. This can make it harder for website owners to understand their audience and make informed decisions based on data
  • Impact on targeted advertising - Cookies are often used for targeted advertising, allowing advertisers to show relevant ads based on users' browsing history and interests. When users block or delete cookies, it becomes more difficult to deliver targeted ads, which can reduce the effectiveness of advertising campaigns and potentially lead to lower conversion rates.
  • Compliance with privacy regulations - With increased awareness and regulations surrounding online privacy, website owners and content providers must ensure they are compliant with laws such as the GDPR and CCPA. This includes obtaining proper consent for cookie usage and providing clear information about data collection and tracking practices. Failure to comply can result in legal consequences and damage to reputation.

Related Post: How to Declutter Your Browser


Managing Privacy Online

Don’t want to be “followed”? In addition to managing cookies online, there are a variety of measures one can take to improve their overall privacy online. Privacy and security come down to more than just cookies and how you allow them. Follow these tips to maintain privacy and keep your vulnerable data safer.

Pick strong and unique passwords

Create strong passwords for your online accounts and avoid using the same password across multiple platforms. Consider using a password manager to securely store and generate complex passwords.

Enable two-factor authentication (even though it takes a few extra steps)Enable 2FA whenever available to add an extra layer of security to your accounts. This typically involves entering a verification code sent to your phone or email along with your password. A lot of people choose to skip this when prompted, because it requires an extra step, but 2FA offers a serious degree of protection when it comes to data.

  1. Regularly update your software and upgrade when necessary - Keep your operating system, web browsers, and applications up to date with the latest security patches. This helps protect against known vulnerabilities that hackers may exploit.
  2. Be cautious with your personal information - Be mindful of the personal information you share online. Avoid sharing sensitive data such as your full address, phone number, or financial details unless necessary.
  3. Experiment with a virtual private network (VPN) -  Consider using a reputable VPN service to encrypt your internet connection and protect your online activities from prying eyes, especially when using public Wi-Fi networks.
  4. Review your privacy and security settings - Regularly review and adjust the privacy settings on your social media accounts, ensuring that you are comfortable with the information shared with others.
  5. Be aware of phishing attempts and get educated on possible online scams -  Be vigilant against phishing emails, messages, or websites that try to trick you into revealing personal information. Avoid clicking on suspicious links or downloading attachments from unknown sources.
  6. Limit third-party data sharing - Understand how websites and apps collect and share your data. Opt-out of unnecessary data collection and selectively share your information with trusted sources. Read the prompts on third-party data before immediately accepting when you visit websites.
  7. Clear your browsing history and cookies - Regularly clear your browsing history, cookies, and cache to remove stored data that can be used to track your online activities.
  8. Stay informed about privacy practices - Stay informed about privacy best practices and evolving threats. Read privacy policies, understand how your data is used, and use reputable sources for information on privacy and security.

How Shift Can Help

There are several ways that Shift can reduce some current privacy concerns, as well as the impact on user experience that comes with reducing cookies. In particular, users find that the enhanced notification management and Workspace offering can really transform the way they use the internet. Shift makes it easy to implement some of the important best practices that can reduce logging in and out and applying website credentials. For example, Shift allows you to set up Workspaces that contain your favorite tabs, bookmarks, and accounts. This makes it simple to have important tabs on-hand and organized by workspace, then bookmark them for quick access later on. You can even add your favorite extensions and make sure they are set up with the programs you use most in your browser. Leveraging Workspaces is a great way to cut down the logging in and out process that can be so time-consuming. With Workspaces, you can personalize your online environment so that it’s most effective for what you want to do. For example, in a Workspace for your job, you might have Slack, Trello, and your company intranet, while a personal one has your banking accounts, Instagram, and your child’s school site. Either way, you can skip the endless logging in and out and jump right into your preferred internet environment whenever you need to.

Shift is the first app-integrated browser. It streamlines your digital life into a single, intuitive view. Known for convenience and speed, Shift ensures that all of the accounts, profiles, and tools you rely on are intuitively within reach. Plus, Shift eliminates the need for searching, opening, and logging into accounts, which allows users to quickly manage their digital life with ease. Shift was designed differently from other browsers, and offers these powerful features that make overall online management easier:

  • Seamless App integration -  Choose from over 1,500 integrated apps and connect each of your accounts for convenient access.
  • Epic Search - Search across all of your accounts, apps, files, and tools to find exactly what you’re looking for, all in a single search.
  • Unified Calendar - Sync each of your calendars into one convenient view.
  • Bookmarks Manager - Organize and save your most-used websites into a focused and customizable bookmarks bar.
  • Notifications Management - Customize notification settings to schedule quiet hours, mute alerts, or show/hide unread badges for focused browsing.
  • Email Management -  Manage all of your email accounts across Gmail, Outlook, and Office 365 in one centralized window.
  • Workspaces - Whether it’s for work or personal, Shift organizes your apps, accounts, tabs, and bookmarks into dedicated workspaces for focused browsing.

Related Post: The Web Browser Built for Power Users

The digital landscape is changing, and the tools you use should change to keep up. Upgrading your browser to an innovative, app-integrated platform can go a long way toward ensuring you maintain a great user experience while also protecting your privacy. Learn more about Shift and the ways that it can improve all of your online activity.