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Feeling watched? Opt out of targeted ads on Facebook, Twitter, and Google


Have you ever researched a product online, only for that exact same item to suddenly feature in every advert you encounter across the World Wide Web?

If you’ve ever encountered an online ad and immediately thought “but how do they know?” then chances are you’ve seen targeted advertising in action.

This particularly invasive brand of advertising takes into account factors such as your search and browser history, plus personal information you might have shared with other parties, to create adverts that are custom-made for you.

If you’re fed up feeling watched, then there’s steps you can take to limit the amount of information you share with advertisers, and on certain platforms you can even opt out of targeted adverts entirely.

In this article, I’m going to show you how to reduce the number of targeted ads you encounter on Facebook, Twitter, across Google’s services, and more!


Should you completely disable targeted adverts?

There’s no denying that targeted adverts can be annoying, intrusive and sometimes even just plain creepy, but many websites rely on adverts to generate a profit, or even to cover their basic running costs. Even some of the biggest websites, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, still favour adverts rather than charging people to use their services.

While targeted adverts can be annoying, it’s important to remember that every time you log onto the World Wide Web, you’re probably accessing a tonne of content for free. Is it really fair to place heavy restrictions on the data these websites can gather, or the type of adverts they can show, when you’re enjoying their content, completely free of charge?

Even if you only restrict the information that large organisations can use in their targeted ads, this can have a negative, knock-on effect on smaller third parties, who might rely on this information to serve targeted ads to potential customers. Targeted adverts aren’t necessarily about huge, global corporations looking to increase their profit margins!

Finally, some targeted adverts can actually be useful, helping you discover new products, services and events that are more likely to interest you, rather than always presenting the same, generic adverts that you have absolutely no interest in.

Not all targeted adverts are bad, and some may even be essential for keeping your favourite websites up and running. Although in this article I’ll be sharing lots of ways to reduce the targeted ads you encounter on a daily basis, don’t automatically assume that you need to implement every technique mentioned in this article. You should only take steps to reduce targeted ads on websites and platforms where they’re becoming intrusive, frustrating, or if you’re getting concerned about just how much the Internet seems to know about you.

Opt out of Google, Twitter and Facebook targeted ads, with WebChoices

You can opt out of targeted adverts from a number of prominent online advertisers, using the WebChoices tool. WebChoices is provided by the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), an organisation that aims to help regulate online advertisements.

WebChoices scans your browser and detects whether participating companies are currently serving “customised” ads in your particular web browser. The downside here, is the word “participating.” Companies need to opt into the DAA, so using WebChoices isn’t going to affect the targeted ads that are delivered by other organisations.

WebChoices also only prevents advertises from collecting and using data that falls under the DAA’s principles, so you will continue to see ads from participating organisations. There’s also a chance that these advertisers may continue to collect and use personal data that falls outside of the DAA’s principles.

However, the list of participating organisations does include some of the major advertisers, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, so if you use these websites on a regular basis then WebChoices can significantly reduce the number of targeted ads you encounter.

To use WebChoices, head over to the WebChoices website, and it’ll start scanning your browser automatically. Once it’s finished the scan, WebChoices will display a list of all participating organisations, along with information about whether they are currently serving targeted ads in your web browser.
To opt out of receiving customised ads from a specific organisation, select its accompanying ‘Opt Out’ checkbox. Alternatively, you can opt out of seeing targeted ads from all the organisations that are part of the DAA program, by clicking the ‘Opt out of all’ button.

Once you’re happy with your selection, click ‘Submit your choices.’

If you regularly switch between browsers, then repeat this process for every web browser that’s installed on your Mac. If you use multiple Macs, for example you have a work laptop and a Mac at home, then repeat these steps for every web browser that’s installed on each of your Macs.

Just be aware that deleting your browser cookies may remove your opt-out preferences, so you should pay a repeat visit to WebChoices after clearing your cookies, or making any major changes to your browser’s privacy and security settings.

When you try to run WebChoices, you may encounter an error message stating that “Your browser appears to be blocking third-party cookies” or “Your Safari browser has default settings that currently interfere with how cookies work.” If you encounter either of these errors, then you’ll need to temporarily adjust your browser’s settings before you can run WebChoices:

  • Open the Safari web browser.
  • Select ‘Safari > Preferences…’ from the Safari toolbar.
  • Deselect all the following checkboxes: Prevent cross-site tracking; Ask websites not to track me; and Block all cookies.
  • Close the ‘Preferences’ window.
  • Head back to the WebChoices website; WebChoices should now run as normal.

Don’t forget to switch back to your original browser settings, once you’ve finished with WebChoices.

Opting out of Facebook ads

The targeted ads that appear on social media tend to be the most disconcerting, simply because these platforms know so much about you!

If it’s starting to feel like your Facebook timeline is reading your mind, then you can restrict the information that Facebook shares with its third party advertisers. You can withhold major pieces of information, such as your location or the name of your employer, or you can make minor adjustments, for example you might not want advertisers to know about your love for a particular band, book or movie.
Facebook has an entire section where you can control exactly what information it shares with its third party advertisers. To access this section:

  • Log into your Facebook account.
  • Select the little downwards-pointing arrow in the Facebook header (where the cursor is positioned in the following screenshot) followed by ‘Settings.’

  • Select ‘Ads’ from the left-hand menu.

This section contains lots of different settings that are worth exploring in detail, but as a starting point you should consider:

1. Preventing Facebook from tracking your activity in other websites, and in other applications

Have you ever searched for a product on Amazon, only to find that product suddenly plastered all over Facebook?

By default, Facebook can see what you’re doing outside of Facebook. If you’re concerned about the amount of information Facebook is collecting and sharing with third parties, then this is one of the most important changes you can make!

  • Scroll to the ‘Ad settings’ section.
  • Click ‘Ads based on your use of websites and apps.’
  • Read the disclaimer, and if you’re happy to proceed then open the dropdown and select ‘Off.’

2. Fine-tuning your interests

Are irrelevant or even embarrassing ads cropping up across your Facebook feed? Your ‘likes’ influence the kind of targeted ads you encounter, which can be a problem if you ‘liked’ a page by accident or under duress (maybe your friend is starting a new business and you want to be supportive, but you’re not all that interested in flower arranging). Facebook might also wrongly infer that you’re a huge fan of pan flute music based on some of your other ‘likes.’

You can often banish certain types of targeted ads from your timeline, by editing your Facebook ‘interests.’

  • Scroll to the ‘Your Interests’ section, and click to expand.
  • Spend some time working your way through the various tabs to see exactly where Facebook thinks your interests lay.
  • If you spot an interest that’s irrelevant, embarrassing or that you simply don’t want to share with targeted advertisers, then hover over it and click the little ‘X’ button that appears.

3. Restricting access to your relationship status, employer, job title and education

These are the major pieces of information that Facebook can share with third party advertisers. If you’d rather keep some, or all of this information private:

  • Scroll to the ‘Your Information’ section.
  • Click this section to expand.
  • Find the piece of information that you don’t want to share with advertisers, and push its accompanying slider into the ‘Off’ position.

4. Don’t get dragged into third party ads!

Some adverts may try to lure you in with peer pressure, by stating that one or more of your Facebook friends are already a fan of this product, service or company.

If you don’t want your name and profile image to be used in targeted ads, then:

  • Expand the ‘Ads with your social actions’ section.
  • Open the ‘My friends only’ dropdown.
  • Select ‘No one.’

5. Opting out of inappropriate targeted ads

Depending on your personal circumstances, you may find some types of targeted ads upsetting or inappropriate. Towards the bottom of Facebook’s ‘Ad Preferences,’ you’ll find a section where you can disable all adverts related to alcohol, parenting or pets:

  • Click to expand the ‘Hide ad topics’ section.
  • Select the subject that’s causing you distress.
  • Specify whether you want to hide adverts related to this topic for six months, one year or permanently.

Opting out of Twitter personalised content

Just like Facebook, your Twitter account contains a wealth of information that it can use to create eerily specific adverts. You can review some of the information that’s associated with your Twitter account, at Your Twitter Data.

This information is used to create targeted ads, but it also helps Twitter promote tweets and accounts that you’re more likely to be interested in. Rather than restricting access to all your information, you may want to experiment with the data that Twitter has access to, striking that perfect balance between maintaining your privacy while still enjoying a personalised user experience.

Similar to Facebook, Twitter has an entire page dedicated to helping you control the information that Twitter and its third party partners can access and use.

Head over to Twitter’s ‘Personalization’ page, where you can deselect any of the following checkboxes:

  • Personalize ads. If selected, Twitter will use your browsing history on and off Twitter, to deliver targeted ads.
  • Personalize based on your apps. Twitter will occasionally collect the list of apps that you’ve installed on your mobile device(s), and use this information to inform its adverts. Note that by default Twitter tries to exclude “sensitive” applications, such as any apps that focus on health, sexual orientation or religious beliefs.
  • Personalize across all your devices. Twitter tries to associate your account with every device you own, and then use this information to deliver personalized ads. This association occurs when you log into your Twitter account on a device, but it may also occur when you visit third party websites or use applications that feature Twitter content.
  • Personalize based on the places you’ve been. Twitter uses your current location, plus your location history, to inform its targeted ads.
  • Track where you see Twitter content across the web. When you visit a third party website that features Twitter content, Twitter records this activity and uses it to refine targeted ads and other content, such as the tweets and accounts that it promotes. This isn’t as invasive as it sounds, as according to Twitter’s privacy policy it doesn’t associate your browsing history with your name, Twitter handle, email address or phone number. Note that even if you disable this setting, Twitter can still use any browsing history that it’s recorded up until this point.
  • Share data through select partnerships. Although this setting isn’t strictly related to the ads you encounter on Twitter, if you’re concerned about the amount of information that advertisers have access to, then you may want to disable this setting. When ‘Share data…’ is enabled, Twitter may share some of your data via its Real-Time Bidding and Audience Data partnerships. Note that disabling this setting won’t affect how Twitter shares data via partnership agreements that don’t fall under the Real-Time Bidding and Audience Data categories.

Opt out of Google, Gmail, and Chrome targeted ads

Even if you’re a massive Apple fan, Google has such a huge online presence that it’s likely you use some Google services, such as the Chrome web browser, Google Maps, Gmail, the Google search engine, or you might even own an Android smartphone or tablet.

To stop Google from showing you personalised ads across all your browsers and devices:

  • Make sure you’re logged into your Google account.
  • Head over to the My Account page.
  • Find the ‘Personal info and privacy’ section, and select ‘Ad settings.’
  • Select ‘Manage Ads Settings.’

At this point you can either tweak your settings so that Google’s targeted adverts feel less invasive, or you can disable ad personalisation entirely.

To get a completely generic experience, push the ‘Ads Personalisation’ slider to the ‘Off’ position. Read the disclaimer and if you’re happy to proceed, click ‘Turn off.’ Just be aware that you can’t block or mute adverts while personalised ads are disabled.

If you’d prefer to restrict the amount of information that Google incorporates into its targeted ads, then scroll to the ‘Topics that you like / Topics that you don’t like’ section and remove any topics you don’t want Google to use in its ads. You could even potentially remove every single category, which should make Google’s targeted ads feel much less targeted!

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Chris

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