Why yes, I *am* especially anxious today, how did you know?
September 4, 2009 5:58 AM   Subscribe

When I clicked on this article from this FPP, I got 3 Google text ads, 2 of which are directed at personal information about me. So I signed out of Google, cleared my cache, history, cookies, etc., and clicked on the link again. Same ads. How?

These are the text ads I got.
Naperville Behavioral
Health counseling for anxiety, fear dpression, and other struggles
Prepare to be Shocked
Millions have already taken this amazing test. What's your RealAge?
No More Panic Attacks
Quick & Effective Cure To Anxiety & Panic Attack. Easy Steps To Follow!
I work near Naperville, no big shock there since I assume they pull my location from my IP. The other two must be targeted at me; I have panic disorder, which I've written about at length. However, it's rare that I search for information about it, especially on my work computer, and my searches for that would be dwarfed by work-related stuff. (My work isn't at all related to the mental health field.) My gmails rarely contain the actual words panic, stress, anxiety, or depression, although if you read some of them it'd be easy to come to that conclusion. Googling my real name brings up absolutely nothing about panic or anxiety. I don't really care if Google knows, but sometimes I have to view web sites with coworkers present, and I'd rather not have MENTAL HEALTH ads all over the place. So what gives? Why am I getting such targeted ads for something that's a minor part of my Google life?
posted by desjardins to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My three are:
- How to Make Electricity: A shocking secret electric companies don't want you to know
- Coffee Fool Exposed: A shocking secret coffee co's don't want you to know
- How to Build Solar Panels: The Secrets of Building Your Own Solar Energy Finally Revealed

Now, I am drinking coffee and running the electricity in my home, and I guess I always love shocking secrets, but I don't think these ads are targeting me in particular. I think it's coincidence.
posted by Houstonian at 6:10 AM on September 4, 2009

I vote coincidence too (sort of an unfortunate one too, what with the panic aspect). Although there was that story the other day...was it on the blue? Or in Wired? Or on Lifehacker? About just how much Google Knows About You....and how to be anonymous...ish.
posted by TomMelee at 6:16 AM on September 4, 2009

I got stress management, background checks, volunteering abroad! advertisements. I think you're just reading into things.
posted by that girl at 6:16 AM on September 4, 2009

I got no ads at all! They must be aware of how empty I'm feeling right now!!
(Or maybe it's AdBlock...)
posted by fish tick at 6:20 AM on September 4, 2009

I'm not convinced that desjardin's ads are coincidence yet (not convinced they aren't, either).

I get
- How to Make Electricity: A shocking secret electric companies don't want you to know
- How to Build Solar Panels: The Secrets of Building Your Own Solar Energy Finally Revealed
- Bernstein & Associates police test preparation review courses
posted by amtho at 6:27 AM on September 4, 2009

Sorry if that seemed like flippancy - it seems like coincidence to me also.
posted by fish tick at 6:29 AM on September 4, 2009

I actually got the RealAge ad and the Panic Attack one along with another unrelated one. I have no history with that or any searching about it, so I'd go with something less specific than tracking you.
posted by advicepig at 6:48 AM on September 4, 2009

I'm in Toronto and I got two Toronto/Canadian ads (understandable geographic targeting), plus something about Mixed Martial Arts, and I happen to know someone who is involved in MMA. But I'm going to put this down as coincidence, and I think you should do. Clusters happen.
posted by maudlin at 6:52 AM on September 4, 2009

You're on the same ip, so maybe google tracks that you signed out and is assuming you're the one still using the computer? Thus the same ads?
posted by symbollocks at 6:52 AM on September 4, 2009

I don't think I have any sort of panic-related profile with the Goog and I get:
- Prepare to be Shocked: Millions have already taken this amazing test. What's your RealAge?
- No More Panic Attacks: Quick & Effective Cure To Anxiety & Panic Attack. Easy Steps To Follow
- Brain Rules - Brain Rules: Read the new book that will change your brain (literally)

Honestly I would expect primarily IT and PC related text ads would be delivered to me. These results don't really pertain to any of my online activity at all. Another vote for coincidence.
posted by Liver at 6:52 AM on September 4, 2009

Best answer: I got a Canadian Home security ad (only one - not three). Yes, they are pulling from your IP (mine, amusingly is actually located several towns away so all my ads come up with that town instead of my own). I think it is co-incidence. I see anxiety ads all the time and I definitely do not suffer from it but a huge segment of the population do and there is still shame associated with it which makes internet help so attractive and the ads profitable.
posted by saucysault at 6:53 AM on September 4, 2009

Counterstrike Kenpo
Street Effective- Self Defense For All Body Types
Free Sex Offender Report
Where do Sex Offenders live in Your Neighborhood? Find out in 60 secs!
Save Big On Home Security
Free $850 ADT Home Security System. Limited Time Offer Ends Soon!

I have no idea what these mean in terms of my browsing habits. I vote for coincidence.
posted by fixedgear at 7:02 AM on September 4, 2009

Response by poster: OK. I will take off my tinfoil hat now.
posted by desjardins at 7:03 AM on September 4, 2009

I got Criminal Records Checks, UK Employment Screening and Bad Breath! Aside from being in the UK none of those ads are relevant for anything I've ever searched for or talked about from my gmail account. It think its just a coincidence
posted by missmagenta at 7:05 AM on September 4, 2009

If your main concern is your coworkers not knowing about X,Y, and Z based on ad recommendations on Google - I don't think most people would automatically assume things about your personal life because of the content of those ads.

If they do, they are stupid, judgemental assholes.

Also, if it ever comes up, I'm sure said stupid/judgemental coworkers would have some very interesting ad recommendations on their Google home pages.
posted by baxter_ilion at 7:15 AM on September 4, 2009

You want tinfoil? I get:
Criminal Records
Search anyones criminal records now Online public record resources.

Criminal Records Checks
Search multiple engines at once for criminal records checks

RMS for Law Enforcement
Manage physical and electronic records in one unified system.
Now, I don't think I've ever wanted to check some random person's criminal record... and I know I don't have one of my own THAT I KNOW OF.... but if Google starts giving me ads next week about how to make a shim from a bar of soap, I'm really going to worry.

This is a longwinded vote for "creepy coincidence."
posted by rokusan at 7:19 AM on September 4, 2009

I think they also pick up on keywords in the article. For instance, all the mentions of the police drive the "criminal records" ads, which I got as well. The anxiety ads might be because the article mentions "until things calm down" twice.
posted by smackfu at 7:37 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Errr, I got an ad for 'sex offender reports'. I knew that shady past would catch up with me someday!
posted by the_ancient_mariner at 7:53 AM on September 4, 2009

I got 3 life insurance ads.... is this a google premonition?
posted by sundri at 7:59 AM on September 4, 2009

A common thread in many products that lean heavily on banner ads is fear. Fear and uncertainty. 'Hmm, I'm not really sure what my credit score is. Gee, there _could_ be a problem.' And since the average person has a good chunk of their mind set aside for uncertainty and doubt, these two factors will lead to a large number of such coincidences as you experienced.

I too have had panic attacks in the past and occasionally wonder if my ads are somehow out there as a result of some past online activity. But then I also get offers for fake Rolexes, thyroid meds and Chanel perfume, and a LOT of offers from single Winnipeg women (I'm married). So they may know my IP (and thus location), but the rest is just an algorithm throwing darts at a dartboard. Being human and having doubts, they're bound to hit close to home with me sometimes.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:21 AM on September 4, 2009

Another vote for keywords. The word "calm" is there at least twice, as is "tension", and there is also the word "power", which may have brought on the electricity and solar panel ads.
posted by fish tick at 8:22 AM on September 4, 2009

Heh. That's pretty neat.

I got:

Pole Superstar
"The Ultimate Pole Dance Competition at the Highline Ballroom Oct. 1st!"
My wife snickered at this one.

Volunteer with children
Long term mission abroad. Catholic prayer & community life.
I'll just squeeze that in after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur....

McDonnell for Governor
www.BobMcDonnell.com - Bob 4 Jobs Contribute Now!
Google is broken. I live in NY. Bob's running for Governor of Virginia.

As far as I can tell, none of these ads seem related to the article. Unless the Fire Chief was a Competitive Pole Dancing Catholic Republican Good Samaritan with Political Aspirations. :)
posted by zarq at 8:33 AM on September 4, 2009

One thing to note is that advertisers are increasingly using Flash Local Shared Objects as a way to 'back up' cookies, so you need to wipe those too if you're trying to fully clear out your browser.
posted by malevolent at 9:50 AM on September 4, 2009

The ads on Google Hosted News are AdSense for Content ads and as such as based on the content of the page and not your personal preferences. Google does serve "interest based advertising" via AFC which is based both on past behaviour and explicit categories that you've siged up for, but this is based solely on your previous ad-clicking history and nothing else. It's also still based on the content of the page. You'd only see anxiety ads more often if you tended to click on them a lot. You can adjust your interest preferences at the ads preferences page and also opt out of the program there. There's still a chance you'll see ads on these topics though as, like everyone else said, ads get shown and there's always some connection if you're looking for it.

Note this particular page has pretty touchy content - it talks about a shooting and police officers and Google is very, very careful to not serve bad ads against this kind of content. No gun ads, "are your feet killing you?" ads, etc. Thus pages like this tend to get very generic ads and they tend to be ads with low bids as higher bidders get excluded because of the content issues for this page.
posted by GuyZero at 9:55 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

One thing to note is that advertisers are increasingly using Flash Local Shared Objects as a way to 'back up' cookies

Not Google's AdSense.
posted by GuyZero at 9:56 AM on September 4, 2009

There is a process by which this could work:

At the start, Google knows who you are because:
a) You're signed in to your account
b) cookies
...and they can see your IP address.

So you sign out of google and clear your cookies. But Google can still see your IP address and knows that your account was there a few minutes ago, so still knows who is (probably) sitting at that computer.

If only a short time has passed (seconds to hours, maybe), it's a safe bet that it's still you sitting behind that IP address. It's only after a day or two passes that they'll start to assume that you've turned your computer off at some point so it's now a different person sitting behind that IP.

When Gmail was released, I read several articles suggesing that this is the main benefit to google of running the service. Because people's IP addresses tend to change whenever they disconnect, it was very difficult for google to build up long-term profiles of its users. All they could do was say "John Smith was at 123.456.789 two hours ago, so this is probably still him now" then "John was at this address yesterday, so there's a 20% chance it's still him today". These days the first thing people do when they go online is sign in to google, saying "hey, I'm back and now at this IP address!". This allows google to connect today's activity to every other time they sign in, creating a very detailed (and therefore profitable) profile over a much longer time, despite changing IP addresses.
posted by metaBugs at 10:09 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Considering that it's not uncommon for hundreds of users to share a single IP via NAT, Google wouldn't get much advantage to associating users with IP addresses.
posted by GuyZero at 10:47 AM on September 4, 2009

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