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Ad Tracking: What It Is And How to Stop It

Are your web ads so personalized that it’s creepy? No, companies aren’t reading your mind — but they are watching your web activity. Through ad tracking, businesses spy on you so they can improve their marketing campaigns. It violates your privacy, but luckily you can stop it. Learn how ad tracking works and why companies use it — then use Clario’s ad blocker with its anti-tracking feature to stop ad trackers and block those annoying ads.

Table of contents

What is ad tracking?

What is Ad Tracking?

Ad tracking is a form of market research that collects user data to improve ad campaigns and target users with personalized ads.

Companies use various tracking tools to follow users’ web activity and analyze how they interact with ads. Based on this data, they can optimize ad campaigns and offer specific products and services.


Ultimately, advertisement tracking involves spying on your web activity in order to increase the likelihood that you’ll buy a product. Though ad tracking is legal, it’s more regulated than in the past because of privacy concerns.


Here are the types of data collected by ad trackers:  

  • Ad clicks: How many times you click on an ad.
  • Ad impressions: How many ads load on a web page.
  • Ad conversions: How many times an ad click leads to a sale, sign-up, etc.

Ad trackers use different methods to collect data. Let’s take a closer look at how each of them works.  

Ad tracking types  

Effective ad tracking requires a variety of data on user activity. To gather the necessary info, companies use different types of ad tracking. Some focus on general web activity, whereas others get specific and analyze your every movement. All of this data is useful for companies in the creation of ad campaigns.  


Here are the different types of ad tracking. Keep reading to find out what type of data is tracked by companies and how they do it.

Tracking pixels  

Tracking pixels are tiny 1×1 pixel dots placed over ads on web pages and emails — they are often transparent. When you interact with the ad, the pixel sends a signal back to a tracking tool.


They can help assess the efficacy of a particular ad campaign by revealing how many people see the ads. Companies can compare this figure with the number of ad conversions. If tracking pixels indicate that a high volume of users see the ad but aren't taking action, the ad campaign needs improvement.  


Tracking pixels infringe on your privacy. Among other things, they can: reveal your IP address, know if you’ve opened an email, and note any attachments you’ve downloaded.  Unlike other types of ad tracking, you can’t currently block tracking pixels — unless you have anti-tracking browser extensions like Clario. Keep reading to find out how it works.

Tracking URLs  

Tracking URLs are special web links that inform tracking tools when a user clicks on them. They appear like normal URLs (web address links) with added code at the end called a tracking token or a UTM parameter.


Here’s what a normal URL looks like:  


And here’s what a tracking URL looks like:  



Once you click the tracking URL, it sends a signal back to the tracker tool about the engagement. Though the tracking token seems random, it’s not. The “source=” refers to where the user clicked the link. And “campaign=” refers to the kind of campaign.  


Like tracking pixels, tracking URLs spy on your web activity so that companies can improve their marketing strategies.  


Cookies are temporary files saved on your browser that keep a record of your online activity — they’re the most common form of ad tracking. Companies use cookies to track browsing habits across the internet to form a “profile” of you, which they use to target you with personalized ads. The more personalized the ads, the more likely you will make a purchase.  


Unlike other forms of ad tracking, websites need your consent to use cookies. So should you accept cookies? It depends on what kind.  


First-party cookies will save login info, items in your shopping cart, website preferences, etc., to make revisits convenient. However, third-party cookies or advertising cookies use the technology to collect consumer data.  


Here are the types of data that cookies can collect:

  • Online activity and habits
  • Hobbies and interests
  • Browser configuration
  • Location information
  • Preferred language

Reasons companies track you  

Companies primarily track you to increase profits, whether through direct sales or ad revenue. Companies that sell directly to customers can use ad tracking to offer you relevant products to increase profits. While websites and platforms like Facebook, which make income from advertising, use ad tracking because it boosts sales, which drives up their ad revenue.  


Though company profits are what ad trackers do best, customers also benefit because they get an opportunity to purchase products that may be genuinely useful for them.  


Take a closer look at the pros and cons of ad tracking.

Pros of ad tracking  

Though there are privacy implications to ad tracking, it can ultimately help you get your hands on relevant products. Like it or not, online advertising isn’t going anywhere. So would you rather get ads for random stuff or for products and services you might actually use?  

Cons of ad tracking  

Although ad tracking can offer relevant web advertisements, they take a lot of liberties with your personal privacy to get them to you. In addition, ad tracking ultimately manipulates you to help a company make a profit.  


Here are the cons of ad tracking listed in the table below.  

Invasion of privacyAd trackers closely watch your web habits to make a secret profile of you as a consumer. Along with information about your location and browser, they can dig up data on your medical history, dating life, and other personal details.
ManipulationSure it might be convenient to get relevant ads, but do you really need the product? On some level, ad tracking manipulates consumers into making unnecessary purchases. Ads can play on emotions to make you buy things that you may regret later.
Normalizing spyingIn a general sense, ad tracking is a form of spying. Companies are using your data (mostly) without your consent, and totally legal. Normalizing ad tracking may lead to more privacy infringements for the sake of corporate profiteering in the future.  

Just like websites, your apps can let companies track you too. Learn how to turn off app tracking on your iPhone.  

What do companies do with collected data?  

For online advertising, companies use collected data to help improve ad campaigns and target you with personalized ads. Collected data gives companies insight into the efficacy of their ads. Collected data also helps companies narrow down ad campaigns to specific groups of customers.  


Companies collect data in different ways. They can get user data from the platforms they advertise on. Or they can integrate data audience insight tools directly onto their websites. Some of these tools include Google Analytics and Social Plugins by Facebook.  


Some companies collect data by hiring data brokers, who collect and sell user data. Data brokers gather data wholesale, create some semblance of a user profile, then sell it for profit. Besides being dubious, it’s also not a very effective picture of possible consumers.  

Ad tracking platforms

For companies who make their money from advertising rather than selling a product, ad tracking is crucial. When products sell, it increases their ad revenue. These companies use a variety of ad-tracking methods in order to boost sales.  


Two of the biggest ad-tracking platforms are Google and Facebook. Here are the methods they use:  


Google allows companies to track user actions like app installs, purchases, and phone calls. Google also enables companies to track other metrics unique to the Google experience.  


Here are the ad tracking metrics used on Google:  

  • Impressions: How often users view a version of an ad.
  • Clicks: How often users click any version of an ad.
  • Call clicks: How many times users tap the “Call” button in an ad.
  • Verified calls: How often calls are received to the Google forwarding number in an ad.
  • Map actions: How often users see an ad and then click a business’ pin on Google Maps or get directions to the business.
  • Amount spent: How much money a campaign has spent.

Though that’s a lot of user data, advertisers have key restrictions on the platform. Google only allows first-party cookies, not third-party cookies, which are more likely to compromise on your privacy.  


For the majority of its ad tracking, Facebook uses the Meta pixel, a tracking pixel that enables advertisers to track ad campaigns on the platform. Along with impressions and clicks, Facebook lets advertisers track downloads, signups, purchases, and other actions, which can help marketers target customers.  


The Meta pixel goes above and beyond conventional ad tracking tools. It can create custom ads that target users based on products that they viewed on an advertiser’s website. And based on data collected from the Meta pixel, Facebook can automatically optimize an advertisers campaign.  

Is ad tracking illegal?  

Although it’s intrusive and sometimes downright creepy, ad tracking is not illegal. Though for a long time, there were no limits to advertisement tracking, today, there are regulations that restrict the extent to which companies can practice it.  


In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR helps protect against aggressive forms of ad tracking. GDPR requires your approval before websites can collect personal data like your name, location, email address, etc. Companies also need consent to log biometric data, like your physiological characteristics, voice, and handwriting.  


Although it sounds like sci-fi, biometrics is catching on as a form of digital identification and authentication. Along with companies, hackers are also after your biometric data. Learn more about biometric security to stay ahead of them.  


In the USA, the California Consumer Protection Act or CCPA lets you request that a company delete your data. It also requires companies to inform users of a data breach. Though it’s a start, unlike GDPR, CCPA doesn’t require companies to get your approval before tracking you. You can only request to have your data deleted after the fact.  

How to block ad tracking

The best way to block ad tracking is with dedicated anti-tracking software. Alternatively, you can use settings within normal browsers to evade some forms of tracking — but not all.


Many browsers contain a private browsing mode, it’s often called incognito mode. Though it enhances privacy, there are limitations. Incognito mode will clear your activity and cookies after use, but it won’t stop all forms of ad tracking. IP address tracking, tracking pixels, and tracking URLs still work in incognito mode.  


A VPN is another great security tool for enhanced privacy — but it’s also limited when dealing with ad tracking. Because it hides your IP address, it’s useful for keeping your location hidden from trackers and other snoops. But a VPN won’t clear your cookies or evade other forms of tracking.  


To thoroughly stop ad tracking while blocking pesky ads, use Clario’s dedicated Ad blocker with its anti-tracking features.  


Here’s how to stop ad tracking with Clario:  

  1. Download Clario and set up an account
  2. On the home screen, toggle Ad blocker 
  3. Click Set up
  4. Hit Got it
  5. Proceed to your Settings app, locate Safari > Extensions  
  6. Toggle Clario switch

Now, proceed to your Safari extension and enjoy tracking-free browsing. But remember, true online privacy and security takes a fleet of tools. Check out Clario’s whole arsenal of security features to truly stay safe online.  

Protect yourself from ad tracking  

Protecting yourself from ad tracking is a multi-front battle. Different types of tracking affect different aspects of your online privacy. The best approach is to stop it all with dedicated anti-tracking software.  


Clario’s Ad-blocking tool includes an anti-tracking feature to stop internet providers from tracking your browsing habits. Plus, it blocks annoying ads, pop-ups, and banners. Don’t let advertisers spy on your online activity, try Clario today.  

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