By on June 22, 2018

car buying

It’s happened to all of us, right? You’re reading a review on a website like TheTruthAboutCars.com, and then you decide to go browsing for some cars online at a dealer’s website, perhaps casually looking for a weekend toy or a new family hauler. Since you’re like most car shoppers, 95 percent of whom don’t take action the first time they visit a car dealer’s website, you leave the site and go about your day on the internet.

But when you go to ESPN.com to check the latest World Cup results (Viva Colombia!), there’s an ad for that same car you were just looking at. Whoa, that’s a little creepy, right? And then, the next day, you get an email from another dealership — you never even went to that website! How did they get your information?

Car dealers are getting more sophisticated than ever when trying to get your attention online. Luckily, your old friend Bark is here to tell you how they do it.

Retargeting is one of the oldest tricks in the digital book, and the one you’re most familiar with. Site retargeting occurs when you visit a dealer’s website and then leave to go elsewhere on the web. Every time a new visitor goes to that site, the code on the site places an anonymous cookie on his or her browser. Later, when those cookied visitors browse the Web, the cookie will let the dealer’s retargeting provider know when to serve ads, ensuring that the dealer’s ads are served to only to people who have previously visited the dealer’s website.

Search retargeting is a little bit different. You don’t have to have visited the dealer’s website in order to be hit with a retargeting ad — they can serve you an ad based on your search history (which your favorite search engine is only too happy to sell). By using site retargeting, a dealer can reach out to consumers who have already visited their website. In contrast, a shopper who is targeted by search retargeting probably hasn’t visited the dealers’s website previously. By using this form of retargeting, the dealer can attract consumers who have conducted online searches that are relevant to the cars they offer. If you’re a Chevy dealer, you can serve Equinox ads to customers who are searching for “small SUV under 30,000,” even if they’ve never actually visited your site, or even searched for an Equinox.

But we can get even creepier. Contextual retargeting helps a dealer serve you an ad for something that you’ve never even searched for. So let’s say that you’re reading a review of that Equinox on TheTruthAboutCars.com, but you never searched for an Equinox, or even a small SUV — you just visit TTAC everyday and read the fine reviews posted there. The dealer’s retargeting vendor scans the text of the sites you read, and serves you ads based on that text. This form of advertising is surprisingly effective — it seems a lot less invasive than traditional site retargeting, because it’s serving you ads for things you might not even know you’re interested in.

That’s not all, though. Dealers can serve you an ad based on your demographics — you may have never even shown the slightest bit of interest in buying a car online, but all of a sudden you’re seeing more Equinox ads when you’re browsing the net. That’s because we know that you’re pregnant — maybe even before your friends and family do. Go here to see what the internet knows about you (works best from desktop). It’s not always right — the internet sometimes thinks I’m 21-24 and I live in an apartment— but your activity online is always being tracked and measured, helping advertisers build a profile for you and placing you in a segment, based on your age, income, family status, where you live — all of it.

Wanna get creepier? Sure, let’s do it. Advertisers can build a profile specifically for you. Legally, they can’t know your actual name (that has to be randomized), but they can build a profile based on your browser — and if you use Google or Facebook, it can even go across devices. Data agencies collect billions of pieces of unstructured data every minute, and they sell your profile to the highest bidder.

And if you use social media, dealers can serve ads to you based on your being a “lookalike.” Facebook places a pixel on dealer websites, collecting your social media information when you visit. A Facebook pixel is code that helps track conversions from Facebook ads, optimize ads based on collected data, and build targeted audiences for future ads — all without you even knowing it’s happening. If your social media profile looks enough like the social media profile of other car shoppers, you’ll be served car ads on social all day long.

The ads themselves are getting better, too. No longer will clicking on an ad simply take you to the dealer’s homepage. Nope, they’re dynamic, which means the ad was built specifically for you and your activity online. Now, you’ll see an ad that features inventory that interests you, not just a generic lease offer. And when you click it, it will take you to a search results page, or perhaps even directly to the vehicle detail page on the dealer’s site.

Why do they do all of this? Because third-party shopping sites, like Autotrader (your humble author’s former employer) are declining in quality. Car shoppers are using search engines to find what they’re looking for more than ever — they might have simply typed in autotrader.com in the past, but now they’re googling “used cars near me.”

Is all of this a bit invasive? Maybe. But it’s also making sure that the advertisements you see online are more relevant to what you want to see when you’re car shopping. If you’re concerned about it, you can take steps online to protect your privacy — you can opt out of data registry, you can choose not to accept cookies, and you can delete your social media.

Or, you can kick back and enjoy your ads.

[Image: George Rudy/Shutterstock]

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47 Comments on “Bark’s Bites: You’ve Got a Target on Your Back, Mr. Car Shopper...”


  • avatar
    FreedMike

    “Minority Report” looks more and more prescient every day.

  • avatar
    jimmy2x

    Someone may prove me wrong, but I believe you can avoid the tracking by browsing in “private “ mode.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    They use zip codes too, probably from your IP address. I get the latest offers from my area when I click on dealer sites, or if I’m on Bing or Google. If I type ‘1969 Plymouth GTX’, a list of available ones in my area pops up instantly. If I look at, say, sports apparel, jerseys of the teams closest to me pop up.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Well then I wish they’d get more sophisticated about the whole thing.

    Yeah I searched Regal GS and TourX, sorry not really interested in your leftover 2017 Regals.

    Yeah I searched for V8 LX platform cars. Not really interested in your Charger STX.

    Yeah I searched V8 crew cab pickups, don’t really want to know about the Frontier.

    Yeah I’ve searched Volvo wagons, stop hitting me with ads for the crossovers.

    Get your $hit together Mr. Algorithm.

    • 0 avatar
      notwhoithink

      The piece that you are missing is that they’re just not interested in only selling you what you want, they’re interested in selling you what they have and what they want to sell you. Looking for V8 crew cabs? Yup, you’ll probably look at Ford but why wouldn’t Nissan try to steal a chunk of that business? Looking at Buicks? The average person is more likely to buy if they get a good deal, so they show deals on 2017s.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      Tangentially related since you brought up frontiers, I wrote up a whole little thing in Corey’s buy/drive/burn but I guess it never went through. I just spent 4 days in Vegas and snagged a rwd crew cab 4.0L frontier as a free upgrade from my $69 Sentra rental. I’ve driven some half tons recently, and found them just too big and bulky. I found myself enjoying the frontier way more than I thought I would. Felt much more comfortable and familiar to me in terms of cabin width and overall length. The old school VQ40 and 5spd auto is a very lusty power train combo, I was scooting away from lights and onto on ramps, just a very satisfying power train. I was window shopping automatic SV 4wds back in my hotel room during a bit of downtime. 1year old ex-fleet trucks with 10-25k miles for right around $20k listed price. It’s a lot of utility for the money IMO. I suspect the rear row would struggle with rearward car seat duty, but adults were perfectly fine back there for crosstown jaunts. Consider me a fan.

  • avatar
    volvo

    I have my computer pretty locked down at the browser level with browser privacy settings plus a couple of ad block and tracker blocking extensions. I also don’t have social media accounts. That means I don’t get as much of what Baruth is describing.

    However when I make a travel reservation (flight/rental car/or hotel) and get a confirmatory gmail back then the targeting begins. That’s where I notice it most but I suppose it happens every time I get a gmail confirmation for an internet purchase.

    I figure it is the price I pay for using Google and all of their services. Annoying but I can just ignore the ads offering hotels/events or other things at my destination.

    Once you accept that pretty much everything you do on the internet will be tracked and logged you either give up using the net or just accept it.

    Europe has just made some small steps to restoring privacy but probably without great effect.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      I got a lot of advertising from priceline.com and 1800flowers.com after I used their services. Let them waste their time and money, I only use them when I need them, and no amount of ad targeting will change that.

  • avatar
    TW5

    The creepiest occurrence for me happened not long ago. A product was mentioned in passing during a youtube video I was watching. The product showed up as recommended buy on an ebay banner ad a few minutes later. The product’s mention was so haphazard it leads me to believe advertisers are scrubbing audio and video through recognition software and then modifying online advertising accordingly.

    Anyway, targeted advertising will do to marketing content what personal digital communications have done to media content. Back in the day, we were paying a few cents for paper and ink, and the remainder of the purchase price went to the content creators. Now we pay thousands for the equipment and services necessary to access digital information so we expect the content to be completely free. This paradigm shift has had a profound negative impact, mainly in mainstream media outlets with no particular specialty or niche. The same phenomenon exists in targeted advertising because the data trackers and algorithm owners will extract most of the profits from advertising agencies. The ads themselves have already become incredibly short and subliminal in orientation. In the future they will probably move into the realm of fraudulent and psychologically or emotionally abusive, but consumers will have almost no way to prove they ever saw the ad or that it was displayed on their device. I suspect attack ads may become the norm as accountability for the claims will be laundered through an increasingly huge and untraceable system of shell companies, payees, etc.

    Data analytics is just the latest nuclear technology. It’s as likely to destroy human society as it is to produce anything useful.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      @TW5 – There are those who argue that mass media manipulation of populations have been going on since the early 1900’s. It has gotten much more sophisticated but the populace has not grown more so. The stuff people post about themselves on social media is a prime example.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus

    Yeah, I’ve seen it, and I don’t care.

    I recently tried Edmunds, AutoTrader and Cars.com to see what new Civic Si examples are going for, and where an example configured the way I want it would be.

    Edmunds required an email address before it would show me the price. Phuck you very much, I thought, and immediately moved on to another site.

    AutoTrader was annoying and difficult to use.

    Cars.com showed me the results with no drama.

    Btw, here is my ideal Si (color and body, etc), nearly 500 miles from my location.

    https://www.cars.com/vehicledetail/detail/737379508/overview/#calculator-top

    Anyway, I don’t care if advertising is targeted at me. Ads would be there anyway, I can just as easily ignore them if they’re about Hondas or if they’re about golf courses in Arizona or a medical clinic in Spokane (the latter of which I have seen several times recently, even though I don’t live there, never have, and sure as hell never researched medical facilities there or anywhere else for that matter).

    I did see an ad for a Ford dealer on this site yesterday that is nowhere near me, showing a Fusion and a Focus, and the Focus was $1,000 more than the Fusion, lol. (This was before I looked up MPG numbers for Fusion at fueleconomy.gov.) I haven’t researched either car, I know what they are and I’m not looking at/for them. If I bought a new Ford on the market *right now*, it would be a 4×4 F-150 XL or XLT. No, that isn’t comparable to a Civic Si, not in the least. And I’m okay with that.

  • avatar
    deanst

    Yeah, “the internet” thinks I’m a gen xer with an undergraduate degree speaking Spanish in New York. Umm, no. It’s always amusing to have ads follow me for weeks AFTER I’ve bought something. I guess I research a lot online, but often buy in store, unknown to google or Facebook.

    The contextual ads are the most amusing – “hey you’re reading a review saying the first ever ford ecosport is a piece of crap! Let’s give you an ad for the ecosport in case you are into buying crap!”

    Despite my amusement, I’m tempted to get the new edition of Firefox which claims to stop a lot of these shenanigans.

  • avatar
    road_pizza

    Funny, this never happens to me.
    Thanks, Adblock!!!

  • avatar
    dwford

    I clicked the “go here” link. There’s no data for my browser. I am a ghost…

    The targeted ads can get annoying, especially after you have made a purchase and they are no longer relevant. At this point all I really need is for Instagram to fix its algorithm. It’s gotten so bad that I try not to touch any of the thumbnails in search anymore. If I do, then my search is overrun with similar posts almost immediately. For awhile I was overrun with photos of Middle Eastern weddings. Now I’m overrun with posts about the illegal immigrant children. So I’m forced to squint at all the thumbnails trying to figure out what they are, because I don’t dare touch them.

  • avatar
    Fred

    This is targeted ads and it happens all the time. Go to Amazon put something in your wish list, go to another site, like TTAC, and there you see that same item in a ad. There is hardly a shopping site that doesn’t do this. You can browse anomysously or clear your cookies. Ad-blockers don’t stop the tracking, they just stop the ads. It’s the price we pay for not paying for websites.

  • avatar

    download chrome
    install various privacy/adblock extensions
    go about your business

    want to get even more safe? Use TOR. or a VPN. Or both.

    Your oracle registry has no idea who I am or what I’m doing. And even if it did, I never see ads.

  • avatar
    srh

    I recently set up a new system from scratch and made the mistake of browsing without configuring the browser first. I had no idea how much advertising there is. Pop-ups, Pop-unders, blinky ads, etc… And that’s all on mainstream sites.

    I generally configure my browsers to always be in private mode. I also disallow cross-site cookies, run tracker blockers, and randomize the browser fingerprint. Of course my IP address still betrays me. Setting up my router to randomly connect to different VPNs is still on my to-do list. The only “social media” I use is Strava, and I really don’t use the “social” part of that.

    Some stuff breaks with these settings. I frequently can’t leave comments, particularly if they’re using Disqus. No big loss. It’s a pain having to re-enter my credentials every time I login to sites, particularly with two-factor authentication. Sometimes login pages behave weirdly, but it’s all manageable and occasionally when needed I’ll open a less-restricted browser, but that effort makes me evaluate whether a site is worth it. I’ll do it for Vanguard, but probably not for autotrader.

    To what end? I don’t know. I’m not doing anything super-secret or super-embarrassing, the notion of being tracked just leaves a bad taste for me. I’d much rather the internet heavy-weights develop a micro-payment system. As it is, I give a handful of websites that I find to create genuinely valuable content (to me) $50 every year or so, but if I could click a button in my browser to quickly and easily send 5 cents to the author of a page, I’d feel less guilty about blocking all their annoying blinky ads.

    • 0 avatar
      srh

      Though mobile throws a big monkey wrench in all this. The options there for blocking are far more impoverished. Firefox Focus seems to be the best bet, but of course who knows what my mobile provider is doing with my data….

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    I distance myself as far from Google as is possible. No account with them. Only Google Earth and correspondence with others with gmail addys expose me to Google’s surveillance advertising. No Android phone.

    Duck Duck go for search. Lastly, get a tracker blocker like Ghostery. It reveals that one or more of several Google trackers on just about all websites.

    Hey look! 14 trackers here on TTAC, and four of them are Google. One is Facebook. All blocked.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    This is a good read, its nice to know the industry terms and definitions.

  • avatar
    cicero1

    Yes, this is highly annoying. I use the following tactics (1) as to google – never use google for a purpose they can make money from (travel search, etc) just look up trivia, etc that does not provide revenue; (2) delete cookies, etc a lot; (3) use one computer to search and another to buy.

    For a while Rolls Royce was having ads follow me around for lease “specials” of 2,999.99/month with 12,999.00 first payment. Not sure where that came from, but unfortunately that is beyond my league.

  • avatar
    Sigivald

    Or you can install things like Ghostery and AdBlockPlus and gank the trackers.

  • avatar
    mcs

    The potential tracking technology that concerns me the most is the eye tracking on GM’s SuperCruise technology. I think it’s possible to combine the eye tracking data with the outward camera data to analyze what you are looking and for how long you are looking at it. So, if you see a new CUV rolling past you and it catches your attention, it will show up in the data and you’ll start getting ads. The scary part is the potential government abuse aspect.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    Ultimately, I don’t care. I would rather see ads for things I am interested in than random garbage. But since I use an ad-blocker, I rarely see ads at all anyway.

    Can’t hold trying to make a buck against them, the internet is mostly free due to all the advertising and I am perfectly OK with that.

  • avatar
    Shortest Circuit

    Never heard of this. Could be something with my hosts config file…
    127.0.0.1 apps.facebook.com
    127.0.0.1 connect.facebook.net
    etc.

  • avatar
    The Comedian

    I’ve had advertisements for the Karma Revero follow me across websites & YouTube.

    I have less than zero interest in a $130K “green” car from a manufacturer who likely won’t be around when the first set of tires needs to be replaced.

    Where are they getting the money for these ads and why do they target me? Are they hoping that, because I read so much car stuff, I might talk some other schmuck into buying one of these?

    Also why do I see so many damn ads for dental implants? My teeth are fine and I am neither a dentist nor an oral surgeon.

  • avatar
    Carroll Prescott

    So what if they do all of this or more.

    When I buy a car, I go into a showroom and go face to face with the salesperson. I’ve been in the business. I know the games. I already know the price range for particular models and even the stock that is supposedly on hand (visiting on Sundays helps as well when there are fewer lot lizards with which to dodge).

    All of this means nothing – they cannot make you sign a contract for anything by tracking what you shop. And unless you are buying the car online (think about that for a minute), then none of this matters one iota.

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    I love how by the time the algorithms figure out that I’m interested in something, that I’ve usually already bought it (or another similar item). Especially with ads for eBay or Amazon.

    Oh, and when I’m at work, I get ads for my employer’s products. That’s useful.


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