How Exactly Websites Track and Stalk You With Their Ads

Joel Lee 03-08-2012

what websites trackLast year, our very own Danny Stieben wrote an article about DuckDuckGo Get A Better Search Experience With Duck Duck Go It seems that there are a couple of services and Linux distributions (such as Linux Mint) that are switching over to Duck Duck Go as their default search engine. So why the heck are they... Read More , one of the newest search engines to break through in popularity–some people even prefer it over Google. DuckDuckGo’s success hinges on the notion that it prioritizes user privacy, and this idea of user privacy has become a hot topic in recent years.


For many people, privacy is considered to be a universal right that should never be infringed upon. Just take a look at the number of privacy-related controversies that have occurred in the past. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook faced a lot of heat related to Facebook privacy options. Even Google endured a lot of criticism for its user privacy changes earlier this year.

Privacy, privacy, privacy. The Internet is known for its anonymity. Without personal privacy, it would be a very dangerous place. But are these companies infringing on privacy rights? How exactly does a website track its users? And what do companies do with that data?

what websites track

For the most part, the danger of losing personal privacy while online begins with search engines. You’ve heard of Google and you know how pervasive that company truly is. Google’s search engine is used on a daily basis in countries all over the world. In fact, it is the #1 most popular site in the world according to Alexa rankings.

How does a search engine track you? It all starts with your search query. Perhaps you’re feeling down in the dumps and you want to hit up Google so you can search for some home flu remedies. As soon as you type that query into the search box and hit Enter, Google records it. If you’re logged into a Google account, it’ll be associated with that account. If not, it’ll be tied to your IP address.


After you’ve entered a search query, you’re presented with a big list of search results. Whenever you click on a search result, Google records that, too. But not only that, Google sends some of your information to that site as well: the search query that you used, your current browser, and some of your computer specifications.

That doesn’t seem so bad, right? After all, you might think that there’s no way that anyone could identify you as a person simply from the browser you use. But you’d be wrong to think that. The truth is that your browser configuration is likely to be unique, and thus trackable.

what websites track you

“Okay,” you might be thinking. “So what if a single site could identify my computer by my browser configuration? It just sounds scarier than it really is.” Which might be true, but your privacy doesn’t just end there.


The Internet is known for being an advertising haven. Name any popular site and there’s a good chance that it will be supported by third-party advertisements. Here’s the catch: whenever you access a site that uses third-party ad agencies, those ad agencies begin to build profiles about you as a user.

For example, let’s say you’re an avid gamer and an audiophile. Your daily routine involves visiting a couple of gaming-related sites as well as a few headphones-related forums. If some of those websites serve third-party ads from a particular ad agency, then they’ll know that you are a gaming audiophile. All they have to do is tie that information to your IP address–boom! Profile built.

Ad agencies then use this information to help tailor particular ads to you. As an avid gamer and audiophile, you’ll be more likely to see advertisements related to video games and headphones. This is called targeted advertising Are Your Search Results Being Personalised To Your Individual Tastes? One of the biggest attractions of the Internet is that we basically have instant access to all of the information in the world - but we rely rather heavily on search engines to bring that... Read More .

what websites track


For some of you, this sounds acceptable. A little bit of private information might be an acceptable compromise, especially if it means looking at ads for items you like rather than items you don’t really care about. But your privacy doesn’t just end there, either.

Sometimes, ad agencies will sell your profile to other companies. For the right price, all of that information about you (your routines, your favorite websites, your hobbies, even the personal information you’ve entered on some websites) will be delivered to some company–all without your knowledge of it happening.

But let’s take a moment and go back to those search queries that you enter into Google. You may not know it, but a lot of companies–even governments–request user search and profile data from Google. Even if Google tries their best to protect your search and profile data, it could still be stolen in a hack attempt. Or a renegade Google employee could take advantage of his high position and violate privacy without anyone knowing.

None of this is to take potshots at Google. I love Google’s products and I love how far they’ve taken technology and I respect them for what they do. All I’m saying is that websites and companies know a lot more about you than you think, and this is how they do it.


If you’re looking for ways to protect your online privacy, consider these articles:

Image Credit: Login Image Via Shutterstock, DuckDuckGo Image Via, Handshake Image Via Shutterstock

Related topics: Ad-Blockers, Online Advertising, Online Privacy.

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  1. dragonmouth
    November 2, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    The only computer that is 100% secure is the one that is disconnected from Internet and power. However, that defeats the purpose of having a computer.

  2. Dave
    October 29, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    "Google sends some of your information to that site as well: the search query that you used, your current browser, and some of your computer specifications."

    I think this line might need revision/clarification. Google doesn't send search queries in a growing portion of cases, when users are logged in or using encrypted search (which browsers like Firefox are implementing by default). For more information on this, look for articles about "keyword not provided" showing up in Analytics and Google's announcements from October 2011. It seems typical for websites to find that in the neighborhood of 15% of their traffic referred from Google no longer includes the search terms.

    I'm pretty sure, also, that Google doesn't send your current browser or computer specs to websites you find through search -- that's actually your web browser/computer that send that data directly to the website.

    The major gist of the article, though, is correct. :)

  3. Pablo Vargas
    August 10, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    Well, nothing new to me here, but nice that you are making other people aware of how things are done.

  4. Tug Ricks
    August 9, 2012 at 8:12 am

    That's why I'm a big fan of Ghostery. At the very least it makes me feel as if I have a bit more control over the information that I give to websites.

  5. Joel Lee
    August 8, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    Everything free always comes with a cost.

  6. C Dockery
    August 8, 2012 at 5:20 am

    Wow! I only thought my privacy was secured. Thanks. Your article is a real eye opener.

    • Joel Lee
      August 8, 2012 at 1:06 pm

      Thanks. Glad you could be enlightened. :)

  7. junbug20
    August 8, 2012 at 4:27 am

    There is also, they don't track you either.

  8. Petey Pabler
    August 7, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    There is also the "InPrivate Browsing" feature in Internet Explorer 9. Again, not the answer but if you are worried about every single site, you can start there. It's only hang up is that it doesn't store anything from your side either (Passwords, cookies, etc.) There are also methods of "spoofing" your IP address, which I don't recommend. Other than that, we can all assume our privacy is pretty much gone.

  9. Red
    August 6, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    Ahm, about DuckDuckGo and not tracking. I put in !gi duck, a nice safe search for pictures of Ducks on Google. Press the button and what do I get? It takes me to Google, lots of pictures of Ducks....and there at the top of the page it shows I am signed in. Surely this means that although DuckDuckGo may not be tracking you, the place it sends you to almost certainly is. Not so?

    Imagine if I had requested MegaPorn as a search term!

  10. john
    August 5, 2012 at 6:39 am

    doesn't the incognito mode in chrome block it as well?

  11. tarzan2001
    August 5, 2012 at 12:49 am

    Apart from the flash video ads that starting playing automatically with the sound ON, I don't mind most ads on sites, and usually just ignore them out of habit. However, it does seem a bit creepy when you've been shopping for a particular item, and then all of a sudden you see advertisements for it or related items in random places on the internet! :S

    • Paranoid
      August 7, 2012 at 6:43 pm

      An alternative, but more technical, is to use a text-based browser like Lynx, an oldie but goodie from way back in 1992. Richard Stallman himself is a proponent and user of text-based browsers. Besides being useful for webmasters and other coders to inspect the underlying "skeleton" of a particular site, text-based browsers are also helpful for persons with visual difficulties or other sensory impairments, who may have difficulty navigating the visual Web. In fact, in the days before images and other media were commonplace online, text-based browsers were basically the standard.

      But because text-based browsers only download text and not images or external scripts, they cannot download advertisements or be exposed to other tracking mechanisms either. It's like browsing the Internet with Notepad where everything is no-frills and you're pretty much reduced to pure HTML or plain text. It's not glamorous, certainly not, and I think the majority of the public have sort of gotten used to the Internet as a pretty candy store with flashing lights and a colorful interface. Obviously, this means not all (perhaps most) sites will work in a text-based browser, but it is certainly an option.

      MUO should test out Lynx if it hasn't already and write a review and howto. Definitely not for the uninitiated but well worth a look. (Kind of like how Google and Zuckface feel about your underwear buying habits!)

      [Broken URL Removed]

  12. Yang Yang Li
    August 4, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    The first thing I wondered after reading a bit is: how does DuckDuckGo make money? I searched this with DuckDuckGo but only received a Wikipedia link that said they made $110,000 in 2011. When I searched this issue on Google, I got an article ON DuckDuckGo that told me the two ways they make money.
    Through sponsored links and affiliate sales.
    They still have a way to go in terms of quality search results. But I do not really care about that. I use Bing because it is pretty.
    Also, DuckDuckGo makes me claustrophobic due to the missing ads that I am so used to. My brain has developed its own adblock and without anything to block #ERROR# #LOOP_SHUTDOWN# #ZZZ#

    • Joel Lee
      August 8, 2012 at 8:59 pm

      Very interesting that a LACK of ads is now unconcerting! My, how far we've come as an Internet-centric society...!

  13. Shakirah Faleh Lai
    August 4, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    It's ok to track or stalk us if they don't exploit our information for their own profit. Everyone needs to eat but please don't eat us.

  14. Antonio Velázquez
    August 4, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    If you use incognito mode (on chrome), those these companies still store what you do in there??

    Personally, I don't really care about those privacy concerns, because, well, they only use them to make stats and ads to improve their business... It would be a real problem if someone i know could have acces to that personal info, and use it for personal purposes...

    • Joel Lee
      August 4, 2012 at 8:34 pm

      Incognito mode may be able to lessen the impact of privacy invasion / profile building, but it won't be fully effective. As far as I can tell, there's no real way to be 100% free from it all (except by avoiding the Internet altogether).

      I think most people would be okay with the idea if companies ONLY used the information for moral, proper purposes. Unfortunately, what happens if their database is hacked? Or what happens when they sell the information without your knowledge? And that's the real scary part: "without your knowledge."

      I wouldn't go into a full paranoia yet, but definitely be cautious with your activity online. It's better to be safe than sorry!

  15. VS Vishnu
    August 4, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    good one..

  16. Rishabh Sharma
    August 4, 2012 at 7:32 am

    Thanks for the info

  17. Nitai Leffler
    August 4, 2012 at 7:04 am

    great article Tnx

  18. Ashwin Ramesh
    August 4, 2012 at 4:10 am

    Thanks for the info, Joel!

  19. Randy Luczak
    August 4, 2012 at 3:14 am

    Informative article, Thanks for your contribution Joel !!

  20. Yithang Lee
    August 4, 2012 at 12:57 am

    About privacy, I trust websites as much as 5 star hotels do. If they expose, or make money out of giving out my personal info to other companies or websites which I never encounter or trust, I'll be pissed off.

    Even though the email show me some potential products and services, I will never ever get engage with them. It was never my intention to be exposed by this kind of intrusive email.

    I prefer to search for them, when I need them.

    Btw, good article.

    • Joel Lee
      August 4, 2012 at 8:29 pm

      That's a good level of safety to have!

  21. Adjei Kofi
    August 3, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    Nice article. Thanks for the info.

  22. Igor Rizvi?
    August 3, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Cool.Im such a privacy freak,but only on internet:))) I had alot of problems regarding the adds and hacked accounts because i didnt took the proper measures to ensure my privacy was secure enough,it was so frustrating at the begining,so i looked for a simple solution (only because my webpages on chroem went bazzzzzzrk:)
    Installed adblock and DonotTrack Plus.My surfing got alot easier since then.Great article,thanks for learning me something new every day!:)

    • Joel Lee
      August 4, 2012 at 8:28 pm

      It's great that you've learned how to improve upon your Internet privacy. Glad that you were able to learn something here, too. You're welcome! :)