What is Behavioral Targeting?

Behavioral targeting is a technique used by advertisers and publishers to utilize a web user’s previous web browsing behavior to customize the types of ads they receive. Behavioral targeting can generally be categorized as onsite behavioral targeting or network behavioral targeting, depending on whether the tracking is deployed on a single website or domain, or across a network of websites.

When a company or website utilizes onsite behavioral targeting technology to hone their ad delivery, they will capture and record the locations a user visits when accessing their website. This is typically accomplished by placing a cookie containing a unique ID in the temporary storage of the user’s web browser. From the data collected, they can create a persona or “virtual profile” for the user that subsequently can be used to target advertisements to the user when they return to the website. Say you visit Amazon.com and search for microphones. Amazon will remember this behavior, and the next time you visit their website, you may be presented with an ad announcing a discount deal on a microphone.

Network behavioral targeting involves tracking across a broader network of websites, and is generally employed by Advertising Networks that operate across a large number of partner websites. As a result of their increased web territory, companies employing network behavioral targeting are able to build up a more comprehensive picture of an individual user’s web browsing behavior. Website publishers that are partners with the ad network are then able to customize their site’s advertising to visitors using the profile the ad network has generated across all its member sites. Going back to the Amazon example: If Amazon is advertising using an ad network, you may see their ads for microphones while viewing a completely different website.

Many advocacy groups and web users concerned with online privacy have pursued clarity in how companies collect and use visitor data to target advertising. While these standards are still not fully resolved, various groups and advertisers have announced initiatives to ensure users who do not wish to have their behavior tracked will have these choices honored. A few such “opt out” pages are maintained by the NAI, the eDAA, and the DAAC.

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