I Was Behaviorally Targeted After Using Microsoft's Do Not Track Browser
Earlier this fall, the online-ad industry was flipping out: Microsoft had decided to turn its new version of Internet Explorer into an ad-supported digital-media killing machine by shipping the browser with "do not track" as its default privacy setting.
Fast-forward six weeks. Now that IE 10 has been set loose on the world, it seems about as forgotten as the 2012 NHL season or Tagg Romney.
I spent several hours over two days last week browsing more than 20 websites, from SI.com to CafeMom.com, using IE 10 with the default DNT feature. I perused the same sites using Mozilla's Firefox, with tracking enabled, to see what was different.
DNT should have made me invisible to ad trackers, thus turning my online-browsing experience from relevant-messaging bliss to a belly-fat-ad nightmare. The reality was quite different.
First, let's get all the caveats out of the way. This report is based on one person's anecdotal experiences, thus it is not statistically significant. And when it comes to ad targeting, it's sometimes unclear whether an ad is served based on a user's previous interactions online, her IP -based geography or merely because the ad is contextually relevant to nearby content, such as the World Gold Council ads I spotted on TheKnot.com. (Not only do I not wear jewelry, I've been married so long that if I were to be in any relationship-related audience segment, I'd be seeing ads for divorce lawyers, not wedding bands.)
Don't get me wrong, though -- I was clearly retargeted while using IE 10. On Monday I visited the N.Y. Region section of NYTimes.com and saw the same ads from BASF and Charles Schwab in both browsers in the same ad placements, neither displaying the AdChoices icon, which has become ubiquitous in behaviorally targeted ads and is overseen by the the Digital Advertising Alliance.
As I continued my mini-quest, I ventured into unknown territory: CafeMom. I'm not exactly the maternal type, so I left the site and soon found myself back at NYTimes.com's N.Y. Region section. That's when things got interesting. Using IE 10, I was served a display ad through Google's network featuring the icon and text links to three sites, including one for CafeMom.com. I don't have kids and I don't visit mom sites, but clearly Google was pegging me as a parent who might like to go back to CafeMom to read about how to cure "momnesia."
In Firefox the same ad space displayed a behaviorally targeted ad for Brightcove Video Cloud that also featured the icon. I'd been served that ad before in Firefox during my test , including on Slate.com's Business section landing page. This behavioral targeting made sense; I read plenty of digital-business-related content.
Monday, as I was working on a story about a federal investigation into shady mortgage-broker ad practices, I searched for "mortgage loan" information and visited mortgage-services sites.
Shocker: I was served mortgage-service-related ads the next day during my test . Visiting CNN.com's World section in both browsers, for instance, I was served the same Lending Tree ad showing mortgage-rate offers. Neither ad included the AdChoices icon, though.
And while viewing a story about "The World's Most Beautifully Designed Spas" in Yahoo's Travel section using my DNT-enabled IE browser, I got an ad asking, "Does Fannie Mae own your mortgage?" In Firefox, I got a contextually relevant (and likely not behaviorally targeted) ad for Disney Parks. Subsequent page-refreshing in both browsers brought on more Disney ads in Firefox and ads from credit-score service TransUnion served through Yahoo's data-driven Genome platform while browsing with IE.
Even Microsoft's MSN.com showed me a mortgage-related ad -- the same one I saw on CNN. On that same page in Firefox, where I choose to allow tracking, I got an ad for a Verizon Windows phone ad featuring the icon.
So while the long-term impact of IE 10 on advertising remains to be seen, my early test reveals there are plenty of ad firms ignoring the DNT beacon. And at this point, Microsoft may have bigger worries than that : I had trouble loading several sites, including CafeMom, CNET, Hulu and CBS.com, in IE. And on sites including WashingtonPost.com and Weather.com, ad-landing pages did not load in IE, either.