The (Confusing) Technical World of Online Advertising

Recently, I’ve been trying to understand the ecosystem of online advertising. The best diagram of the process (that still leaves out important layers) I could find is:

Let’s just say that this diagram didn’t clear everything up for me. My saving grace came in the form of this wonderful interactive visualization called Behind the Banner. It takes less than a minute to get a sense of the process from the great visualization; I would highly recommend checking it out.

In the Behind the Banner visualization, there is a step in the process described as “servers looking to bid on the impression may communicate with other servers to augment their data on the consumer.” As the consumer (and a computer science student), this concerns me. I want to know exactly what it means to “communicate with other servers to augment… data” on me, thank you very much.

While conducting google searches, I was bombarded with online advertisements, advice for digital marketers, and NPR articles concerned about user privacy. However, no one was explaining from a user-centered perspective how this technology worked.

Then, I was amused to stumble on Martin Kinh’s (his life story based book was adapted to become the TV show House of Lies) great semi-technical article on how Data Management Platforms (the gray circle in the diagram above) are able to “communicate with other servers to augment their data on the consumer.” He also admits that very few people understand how this whole process works. But the “you” he addresses repeatedly in the article is not me, the concerned user, but, again, the digital marketer looking to make more money advertising on their website.

In the past several years, there has been increased discussion about user privacy, ad blockers, and cookies; however, there is little understanding about how companies are selling consumers’ data. The process is complex, but so many companies have a financial interest in us not understanding enough to protect our data. More accessible resources need to be created so people can understand how to opt-out of many of these invasive policies. I plan my next post being a list of ways for consumers to opt-out of trackers they do not want (along with hopefully helpful explanations).

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