In February 2004, the world changed a little more than anyone could’ve expected when Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook with his Harvard classmates, Dustin Mokovitz, Andrew McCollum, Eduardo Saverin and Chris Hughes.

What started out as a real convenient way to politely stalk your classmates, turned into a legitimate site that helps people stay in touch with friends, family, and colleagues all over the world. It’s incredibly rare to meet someone who doesn’t have a Facebook account these days.

According to Business Insider’s 2015 article about Facebook, the global daily average on Facebook is 20 minutes per day, but the United States average actually comes in at double that—a whopping 40 minutes.

40 minutes might not sound like that much, but look at it this way—that’s 1,240 minutes most months. That’s over 20 hours a month.

The average American spends nearly one day of their lives on Facebook each month.

It didn’t take Facebook, and all the companies out there looking for good sites to advertise on, to realize they had a powerful tool on their hands.

As Facebook has evolved over the years, from a simple site that only allowed kids with .edu addresses to join, to a site with some of the most sophisticated face recognition software available to tag your family and friends, its ad network has gotten a lot more sophisticated too.

It might seem like Facebook can read your mind when you see the ads on the page. That’s because they can. If you look at Facebook’s business page for their ads, they inform advertisers

“…one of the biggest advantages to advertising on Facebook is your ability to target specific groups of highly engaged people. In fact, compared to the average online reach of 38% for narrowly targeted campaigns, Facebook is 89% accurate.”

How does Facebook do this?

We let them

Turns out, we just hand over most of that info right to them.

When you sign up for Facebook, you set up a profile. The more accurately you set up your profile, the easier it is for people to find you. Most people don’t think twice about entering their gender, age, and location. Those three big factors are major players in how advertisers target you. Even if you’ve selected not to have those things listed on your public profile, they’re still stored in Facebook’s database.

The way targeted ads really start to work is based on what you like and any interest or hobbies you list on your profile. Even your work and education listing can be mined.

To give you an idea, let’s talk about Person X (hi there, person X is based on me). Person X is:

  • Female
  • 32 years old
  • Has only ever listed New Jersey under places she’s lived
  • Attended three colleges and has two different Master’s degrees
  • Worked at a lot of performing arts companies
  • Listed her political views as liberal
  • Liked 14 different bands
  • Part of seven Facebook groups
  • Has left one angry review with a parking company
  • Has liked roughly 300 pages during 12 years on Facebook

She has also checked in to about 200 places (FYI—this is rarely intentional and happens because of Facebook geotags on uploaded pictures and those pictures are mostly uploaded by friends and family).

Facebook can do a lot with that information. Person X can also tell you that Facebook advertising is extremely effective. While she is able to breeze past the majority of internet advertising, Facebook is why she now owns several ModCloth outfits and a pair of Beta brand yoga pants.

ModCloth targeted her easily because she’s their perfect demographic.

  • 20-35 years old.
  • People who like things in the category of Apparel and Fashion
  • People who like things in the category of Books and Literature
  • People who liked Victoria’s Secret, Forever 21 and Etsy

Person X fit this profile perfectly. And sure enough, it didn’t take long for the perfectly targeted ModCloth ads to catch her eye and for her to click over to the site.

And spend $100.

There’s a multimillion dollar industry for advertising research and Facebook is a gold mine for these folks. They can endlessly cross-reference what people like ModCloth with the other things those people liked and then target the folks who haven’t liked ModCloth yet but like most of those other things.

And we happily supply all this data ourselves.

Our information is stored

We’re also affected by the cookies in our browsers. Cookies store information about the websites we visit as we jump from site to site. Many sites work together to share this information, so if you were just on Amazon looking at a product for a few minutes but decided to move on without buying it, you may flip over to Facebook only to find it’s the first ad you see there.

You may have noticed that you can sign into a lot of sites these days using your Facebook log in. If you’re not paying attention to the fine print, doing that allows Facebook to access any information about what you’re doing while you’re on that other site.

So how do we stop Facebook from invading our privacy?

There are a couple of steps to take.

  1. Go to the little upside down arrow on the upper right hand corner of Facebook. Click it.
  2. Click on Settings.
  3. Click Ads in the left hand column.
  4. Change Ads based on my use of websites and apps to No.
  5. Change Ads on apps and websites off of the Facebook Companies to No.
  6. Change Ads with my social actions to No.
  7. Click on Ads based on my preferences and click Visit Ad Preferences.
  8. Remove your Interests and Advertisers with your contact information. There’s no quick way to do this. They have to be deleted one by one. It’s extremely tedious.

Next, you’re going to want to visit the Digital Advertising Alliance opt out tool. It’s really easy to use and the link includes step-by-step instructions on how to use the tool.

Finally, once the Digital Advertising Alliance opt out tool stops running, you can disable third party cookies in your web browser. Make sure you wait until the Digital Advertising Alliance opt out tool is done, because trying to do both at the same time can make them ineffective.

This won’t prevent every single target ad but should reduce them drastically. A few marketing networks operate outside the Digital Advertising Alliance, so you may still see some targeted ads on some sites. However, this should keep most companies from sharing your information with each other and certainly keep Facebook from helping the companies take all your money.

Summary

A little effort can go a long way to prevent target ads, but most of the work starts with you. The less personal information you put out there, the less likely that targeted advertising will be effective on you. Before you click ‘Like’ a new company’s Facebook page, really consider if you want Facebook to have that information!

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