Online Ads Can Track You Across Multiple Devices

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Advertisers have tracked us on PCs for years with “cookies,” tiny files on our computers that (without prompting from us) save information about our viewing habits online. It’s the same technique that saves website passwords for us.

But as more people use multiple devices, including smartphones and tablets, advertisers can’t see the bigger picture — especially because the same technique doesn’t work well on wireless devices, The Wall Street Journal says.

Now they’re figuring out ways to track us across all of them. One company helping them do it is Drawbridge. Travel site Expedia used its services last year to find patterns among otherwise anonymous users.

If Drawbridge’s tracking methods found enough information in common across a mobile and nonmobile device (such as using the same Internet address at similar times of day), it made an educated guess the same person was behind both screens. That enabled Expedia to send deal ads to mobile users who had recently been checking out prices from a desktop (perhaps at work) and were likely to book from the mobile device.

The advantage to both consumers and advertisers behind heightened tracking abilities is more relevant ads — they’re more likely to be clicked because they provide something the consumer wants, which means advertisers can also make more money from them.

On the other hand, more sophisticated tracking may allow advertisers and companies to milk valuable customers. Last year, we wrote that another travel site, Orbitz, was highlighting more expensive hotels for Mac users than it was for those who use PCs.

Mobile ads account for 2.4 percent of American ad spending, but are becoming more important. They went from a $1.5 billion business in 2011 to a $4.1 billion business last year.

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