Social Media

Why Am I Seeing This Ad? How Social Media Ads Target You

Danny Stieben 08-10-2013

Every social media site out there shows us ads, and there are many reasons you shouldn’t block them AdBlock, NoScript & Ghostery - The Trifecta Of Evil Over the past few months, I've been contacted by a good number of readers who have had problems downloading our guides, or why they can't see the login buttons or comments not loading; and in... Read More . But sometimes, those ads can get very specific towards you, often showing you ads that seem creepy and stalkerish.


Some ads might even promote a website that you visited only ten seconds ago. How do they do it? While I don’t recommend that you start using ad blockers, I can explain to you how those sites’ ads target you, and what you can do to throw those social media sites off your tracks.

Profile Information

Have you ever wondered why sites like Facebook keep nagging you to complete your profile down to every last detail, including which movies and books you like? No, it’s not necessarily because it allows you to connect better with your friends and any potential friends (although that is a nice side effect). Instead, Facebook uses the information you put in your profile to display the right ads.

This is pretty much the easiest way for sites like Facebook to target their ads, as you’re literally spoon-feeding them information about you. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but it’s the truth. With such a large user base that has a lot of descriptive information about each person, an advertiser can easily use Facebook’s platform to choose various parameters which they think will offer them the most effective advertising campaign.

As an example, let’s say that you’re an advertiser who is looking to sell textbooks to college students. You can then buy advertising space on Facebook and choose various parameters, such as age, education, and interests (think school subjects). If you target your ads at people aged 18-22, go to a college or university, and enjoy math, then you can very easily target math textbook ads to those people. These ads will appear as little snippets on the side of your news feed to fill up the intentional remaining white space.

More on this can be found in this explanation of how Facebook advertising works How Facebook Advertising Works & How To Place An Advert If you've ever considered advertising on Facebook, but assumed it was completely unaffordable except for the largest companies and corporations, you may want to think again. If you've ever advertised on Google, using the pay-per-click... Read More .


LinkedIn could look at your profile information to target ads, but surprisingly it doesn’t. Instead, it uses Google’s advertising framework to simply display business-related ads. Of course, the entire site revolves around business and connections, so they’re still relevant. However, I don’t think you’ll see ads specifically related to your job unless you’ve recently been researching a lot about your own field and Google picks up on that.


Facebook and LinkedIn are sites you give a lot of profile information to. This is not quite the case for sites with slimmer profiles such as Twitter. Instead, these can look at who you follow or simply where you’re from and show you ads targeted for specific countries. This is great for brands that are popular in specific countries, and it’s less invasive from a privacy standpoint for the user. Groups looking to advertise something as specific as textbooks may not have a whole lot of luck here, but larger recognizable brands will. Additionally, these ads aren’t shown as “traditional” ads, but rather as “promoted updates” that blend seamlessly into your feed.

While Instagram and Pinterest don’t have any ads yet, they are expect to start “monetizing” the service soon. Both services will most likely end up targeting users in similar ways to Twitter, either by location and/or by the profiles a person follows. Ads will then be displayed as “promoted” material.

Browsing History

The other way social media sites like to target ads is by examining the cookies in your browser. Most websites you visit will place a cookie in your browser, which is a little bit of information the browser can use to “remember” certain states. For example, a cookie can remember that you’re already logged into a website, so next time you turn on your computer and visit that site, you won’t have to log in again. If you delete all of your cookies while cleaning out the private data in your browser, the website will immediately ask you to log in again.


Looking at which cookies your browser has doesn’t seem to be violating any privacy laws. In addition, each cookie is encrypted, so third-party websites can’t look at its contents, but they can see which site the cookie came from. That’s all it needs to look for more personalized ads.

You can find more information on Facebook’s advertising via browsing history here.

As mentioned above, another prominent user of this type of targeting is LinkedIn due to its relationship with Google’s advertising service. The service relies heavily on the sites you’ve visited, and returns relevant ads accordingly. In LinkedIn, they try to remain as relevant as possible to you, all while maintaining the category that LinkedIn chose as its self-identified type: a business site.

How To “Unpersonalize” Your Ads

There are a few ways which you can reduce the likelihood that ads will be directly specifically towards you, but they don’t come without tradeoffs.


The first step you can take is to remove as much information Facebook Shadow Profiles: You Probably Have One Too [Weekly Facebook Tips] You think you're not on Facebook? Think again. Facebook no doubt has a shadow profile made just for you. You may recall recently that Facebook found a bug exposing personal details of 6 million user... Read More from your profile as you can. While this can make it less enjoyable to connect with your friends, it’ll provide less information that Facebook can use for their ad targeting. This is probably the easiest, least annoying, least inconvenient step you can perform.

The other is to make regular use of private/incognito mode in your browser, as well as regularly clean out your cookies. Of course, it’ll take some extra effort to keep using incognito mode, and it’ll be a pain to have to log into your websites again after each cookie cleanup.

Although only slightly related, there are also ways in which you can remove your name from appearing in certain social ads.

Theoretically speaking, you could visit some random sites to randomize the data your browser stores so that you don’t get as targeted ads. However, this isn’t at all practical to do, and it’s not nearly as effective as the above two suggestions.



Now that you know how social media ads work, you can put your mind to rest (at least a little bit). Again, just to be clear, I don’t recommend that you start using ad blockers because these sites still exist to make money through their advertising frameworks, and blocking ads only keeps revenue away from them. They’ll then find other ways of still getting that revenue, and those alternatives may end up being more intrusive than you want.

If you’re looking for a social media network that doesn’t have any ads — it’s Google+. While I’m sure that Google could monetize the social network (and they probably will at some point if it keeps growing), for now it’s ad-free. Don’t get confused though, Google definitely still has information on you, and they definitely use it for ads — just not on Google+

How do you “unpersonalize” your social media ads? Do they even bother you? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credits: by Jean-Pierre Louis Via Flickr

Related topics: Facebook, LinkedIn, Online Advertising, Twitter.

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  1. dragonmouth
    October 9, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    Sorry, Danny. There is no way you will convince me to give up my ad blocker. Even if I did allow ads on my PC, I would totally ignore them. So, whether I use a ad blocker or not, the end result is the same - I do not click on ads.

    • Danny S
      October 31, 2013 at 9:32 pm

      There is a difference though. Advertisers can pay by click (which you're referring to), but also pay by impression (views). So, sites can still generate money as long as they show the ads, even if they aren't clicked.

      You could at least allow certain sites that you like to display ads? It's like giving us a tip for our work. :)

  2. Fred M
    October 9, 2013 at 7:58 am

    Ad block pro is what I use but rule of thumb is never give more info then I have to and never a phone number.

  3. Xiao Deng
    October 9, 2013 at 12:23 am

    me too :P
    this random porn ad popped up once because of this application my mom uses called QQ >_<

  4. Baylin
    October 8, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    I use adblock.