Targeted advertising explained: how it works and what you can do to protect yourself

If you’ve ever seen an ad pop up on your screen while browsing the internet, then you’ve most likely come across a targeted ad. You may be asking, “how does targeted advertising work?” and “how is it possible for an advertiser to target internet users this way?” Well, it mostly relies on the data that companies collect about us. 

What is targeted advertising?

Targeted advertising (also “targeted marketing”) is when online ads specifically target certain individuals based on information collected about their interests, frequent searches, geographical location, and many other factors. It’s also known as “targeted ads” or “focused advertising”.

What does target advertising look like?

Target advertising looks just like any ad on the internet, but there’s a twist: it’s aimed at you.

By monitoring our web browsing, advertisers can gather data about the websites we visit, the types of products we look at, and other browsing habits and user behavior information. They also collect information from social media posts. 

This allows them to better understand who you are and what ads you might click on. So companies target advertising at you, hoping you will buy the product. Seems like a great deal, right? Only getting ads for the things you need. 

However, the system isn’t that smart. It doesn’t know that you have already made a one-off purchase and won’t be buying anything related anytime soon. That means you will be chased by ads that are no longer relevant

Have you ever looked online for a new set of pillows and later found yourself flooded with pillow ads? That’s targeted advertising at work.

Types of targeted advertising

Online advertising, especially targeted advertising, is a hot digital marketing topic. The ever-growing marketing industry is always finding ways to advertise products to consumers with targeted advertising campaigns to increase sales. So it’s no surprise that the demand for data and the popularity of targeted advertising have led to different types of targeted ads, including:

Contextual targeting

Traditional contextual advertising uses automated methods to place ads relevant to a site’s content based on keyword targeting. This is as basic as targeted marketing gets.

For example, you may see an ad for a pair of reading glasses on a book seller’s website.

Behavioral targeting

Behaviorally targeting ads look for internet users based on their online behavioral data. It makes comprehensive user profiles based on online searches, purchase history, and frequented websites. 

For example, if you are flooded with ads for pet supplies shortly after looking up dog toys, then you’re experiencing behavioral targeting.


Advertisers use geo-targeting to determine in what parts of the world their ads will be seen.

For example, fashion retailers often customize their campaigns and on-site experience depending on visitors’ local weather conditions. As a result, online shoppers in cold locations may see more ads for outerwear than shoppers in warm locations. 

Social media targeting

Social media is a powerful marketing tool since many customers prefer buying goods through social media rather than through e-commerce websites or physical shops. Plus, they reveal a lot about themselves on social media websites like Facebook. Due to access to age, gender, and other data, sellers can use targeted marketing to laser focus on their desired customer group. 

For example, sponsored products you see on your social media timelines and news feeds are likely the result of advertisers targeting a demographic you fall under. 


Brands can retarget customers who have previously shown interest in or interacted with them. This results in ads for products related to your previous purchases. Probably one of the most annoying reasons to make you go, “why am I seeing this ad?”

For example, a consumer who buys a set of weights is likely to get retargeted with advertisements for additional workout gear like bands or sports clothes.

How does targeted advertising work?

Targeted Ads

Now that we’ve answered the question “what is targeted advertising?” and gone over the different targeted advertising strategies, let’s see if we can explain “why am I seeing this ad?” as well. 

Step 1

Most market campaigns start with a website collecting data on its users, including their:

  • Browsing habits;
  • Location;
  • Activity on the site;
  • Device type;
  • And preferred language. 

Websites typically gather this information by installing cookies. Cookies are small files that record your on-site activities and track information about you. This information is collected and then sent to the CRM or third-party services.

Step 2

Search engines can be another source of data. They analyze search queries and user behaviors to offer sponsored advertisements on the search engine results page. 

Step 3

No matter how your data is collected, it goes back to the company analyzing it for marketing purposes. Companies and advertisers can then use your data to create targeted advertisements.

Can ads follow me across devices?

Targeted advertising can and definitely does follow you across devices. The most simple way is via your social media accounts: Facebook and Google know it’s you no matter what device you log in from. 

Some ads target IP addresses, which also doesn’t change if you switch from one device connected to your Wi-Fi to another. In this case, targeted ads can also follow you across devices

How can I stop targeted ads?

If you don’t want to participate in targeted advertising, I’ve got you covered. Here are four easy steps you can take to protect your private data:

Use ad-blockers 

Simply having an ad blocker is a huge first step. Popular ad blocking extensions work on the browser level to prevent advertisements, banners, and pop-ups. However, you can go further with an ad block VPN such as Surfshark and its CleanWeb feature. It removes known adware and spyware ads from your browsers and applications, giving your private data an extra layer of protection.

Don’t stay logged in to your Google account 

Even if you use a VPN, Google ties all your activities to your Google account. So when you stay logged into Google, it continues to collect data attached to your account for targeted ads.

Use a VPN to hide your identity 

A virtual private network won’t hide all ads, but you won’t get any personalized ones. A VPN hides your internet activity from all prying eyes, including marketers and your internet service provider (ISP). 

A VPN service also conceals your actual location as it connects to a different IP address, protecting you from geo-targeting. 

Note: If you use Facebook or Google while logged in to your Google account, these services will still be able to track you via your profile.

Don’t use your personal email to register for websites 

You should have an email purely for official business purposes. All information collected and attached to your name and email can be used for targeted advertising.

The advantages of targeted advertising

Targeted advertising has some advantages – mainly for the business. Here is some commonly accepted wisdom:

  • Increased targeting personalization: consumers supposedly like ads they can relate to. So with targeted advertising, the message can be tailored to the audience.
  • Better ad spend ROI: ROI stands for “return on investment” – the higher the ROI, the more effective your marketing campaign is. So if you target only the right people and use the right ads via targeted marketing, a bigger percentage of them should choose you.
  • Streamlined marketing: when you don’t have to be everything for everyone, and you know both the channels and the audiences you want to hit, you can focus on specific mediums, ad topics, and so on. 
  • Increased brand engagement: good ads that hit just right increase brand awareness and engagement.

Why is targeted advertising bad?

At first, targeted advertising may seem convenient. Why wouldn’t you want ads and products curated just for you?

But while it is convenient for marketers and advertising agencies, the reason why targeted advertising is bad targeted advertising puts your personal data at risk. Anyone can buy this data and use it for purposes more devious than targeted ads and advertising campaigns.

Here are a few concerns that shouldn’t be excluded from the discussion on targeted advertising ethics:

1. It reveals personal information 

Targeted advertising can include personal information about your age, gender, income, relationship status, political views, and sexual orientation. You wouldn’t want just anyone  getting their hands on this type of information, as it could potentially cause you harm.

2. Companies can advertise on your predicted behavior

Companies can forecast your behavior and incentivize your actions. For example, Target can predict when a consumer is pregnant down to the trimester based on their behavior. This means that Target can make an educated guess about the delivery date and use that information to advertise relevant products throughout the pregnancy.

3. Industries can charge you more 

Insurance companies can use such data to predict whether they can charge people higher. This particularly touches low-income consumers who have fewer market choices due to their location, financial literacy, or  socioeconomic status. In turn, such data can lead to unfair and discriminatory pricing.

If you want to dive deeper into the reasons why targeted advertising is bad for you, here’s where you can do so:

In conclusion: targeted advertising can be stopped

Targeted advertisements are not only irritating but also put your personal information at risk. Most people are unaware of how targeted advertising works and how much information is collected online. Are you ready to protect yourself from targeted ads? A VPN is the way to go, and Surfshark can help with that.

Fight the targeted ads back

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What is meant by the term “targeted advertising?”

Targeted advertising is a type of advertising that uses people’s data to create ads specifically for them.

What are the targets of advertising?

Consumers (read: you) are the targets of advertising. And with targeted advertising, that field is narrowed down to the people most likely to buy the product. 

What are the risks of targeted advertising? 

For the ad purchaser, the risk of targeted advertising is misjudging their target: if the ads are displayed to demographics that aren’t likely to buy the goods or services, then the campaign is wasted – especially if it’s unlikely to hit the actual intended target. 

For the consumer, having your digital portrait maintained online can be a huge privacy intrusion risk. There are quite a few dangers, from ads and offers that can reveal sensitive information to the fact that the data may leak and be used by scammers.