Quick question – when someone mentions cookies and the internet, do you think they’re talking about a bespoke delivery service? Or when they mention pixels, do you think they’re talking about the Adam sandler megaflop. Well we’re here help you –we’ll start with a few quick definitions:
Cookies are wee little pieces of data stored on your browser which can be used to help recognize it across different websites. They’re the reason that sites can remember your passwords and credit card details. These little guys store info on the websites you’ve visited, products and serviced you’ve viewed, ads that you’ve clicked on and other fun stuff like that. They’re text files so you can open ‘em up and take a squiz, but they’re also encrypted so it’s pretty much pointless.
Pixels on the other hand are wee pieces of code that live on the webpages. They allow data about the website’s visitors to be captured. They’re kind of cool: 1×1 transparent image pixels that are entirely invisible to users. They get set off when particular ‘event’s occur on the site and then this generates a cookie on your browser.
So basically, they’re your cyber stalkers; following you, watching you and sniffing your dirty internet laundry. And the thing is, they’re present on pretty much every website. That’s the devil’s bargain you make when you use the internet. These guys help generate a profile of who the internet thinks you are, so the ads you see and the search results you get are more tailored to this cyber person.
It’s not easy to see the profile built up around you, but if you head to Google’s Ad Personalisation page, you can at least see who Google thinks you are. Apparently I’m a 25-35 year old woman with interests as far ranging as ‘autos & vehicles’ and ‘soccer’. Incidentally, I couldn’t care less about either.
There are even third party companies called ‘trackers’ who use pixels to follow you around the web and then report your activity back to companies for a fee. This gives those companies valuable insight into who you are and how to get your attention.
If you’re interested to see who’s tracking you, try these sites:
It’s really disconcerting, actually. I downloaded Ghostery and was genuinely shocked to see that I have 1 047 advertising trackers. That’s more trackers than websites I’ve been to this year. If I were more privacy-orientated I’d probably do something about this. But the fact is, like most of us, I’m kind of lazy. It’s not just that it would take too much effort to block the trackers and delete my cookies and all that. It’s actually because these trackers are convenient as hell.
For example, I pretty much only see advertising for things I’m actually interested in. Which is a pleasant change from the early days of the internet when basically every ad was for weight loss or porn. I also get results that are geographically relevant to me. If I search ‘Northern Hotel’ in Google, the first result is for a pub just down the street, not somewhere in the US. And when I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed, it’s organised according to my taste. I guess it’s different for everyone, but I don’t mind having a more tailored internet experience. Besides, if websites couldn’t make money through advertising, we’d have to pay for them.
Personally, I’d much prefer to spend my money on burgers.