The Internet has become one huge game of follow the leader. Companies are spending huge dollars to find out all about your browsing habits. For example let's say, you are in the market for some new sneakers. In your quest for the perfect pair of shoes at the right price, you fire up your trusty Internet browser and begin the process of sniffing out your quarry and sizing it up for the kill; with free shipping too! At this moment unless you take steps to ensure the sneaker manufacturers, distributors, and retail outlets are looking over your shoulder at every dark alley you browse down. So you say, "How widespread is this?" Or, perhaps you are thinking, "I didn't even know this was happening." Now, keep in mind there is nothing even close to scientific about this data, but about two weeks ago I started conducting a survey on the websites I visit regularly (and no I won't name them.) I found there are between 6 and 12 tracking tools showing up on every site. Actually, the counts didn't surprise me at all, but the next valid question is just what kinds of tracking are they sites doing.
In a nut shell, the tracking falls into three general categories; Social Media, Advertising Networks, and Individual Companies. The reasons each of these entities is recording your surfing behavior differs, but the same techniques are employed. So let's rewind to the shoe shopping scenario I laid out above. The social media leg of this three-legged stool MAY be interested in knowing that you purchased yourself a brand new shiny pair of $300 jet powered sneakers, so they can taunt all your friends in the social media world. I call this method of selling to prospects the "Big Green Eyed Monster", nothing you haven't seen for years on TV. Remember when you were a kid, and you were bombarded every 22 minutes with the latest toy de jure. You knew you would die without it; you were doubly sure the kid down the street already had it, and you were the only loser in the neighborhood without one.
Advertising Networks take a little different tack on using this data. The various sneaker manufactures of the world are VERY eager to know that you are in the process of shopping for a product they produce. So, they are able to start "pushing" information at you while you are browsing touting their wares. You can look at this technique as electronic targeted hawking. Sound familiar? The only real difference here is when the hawker comes after you, he knows you have been looking for a specific item.
The last type of tracking is done by individual companies. This area is somewhat similar to Advertising Networks in that the company wants to know the product you've been on the hunt for, and may see this as an opportunity to initiate an "up sell" and/or a "cross sell." In the end result, browser tracking is just an electronic update on sales techniques that are tried and true and have been part of the formula since the first cave man traded a piece of flint for an already built stone hide scraper.
Now; before you take to your cave and vow to never browse again, let me say, "Personally, I am not against this type of data gathering." For the most part it is "anonymous" and not able to be traced back to the human running the mouse, but those of you of a more technical bent also know that with a few more wires connected that is also very "do able." At the moment, the approach in the States is pretty much a wild west approach, but there is various legislation in the works to change that. Europe is ahead of us here as is often the case. Earlier this year laws went into effect at lease in the EU requiring websites to acquire permission from the browser to track you making the answer to that question a person's responsibility and choice. In my opinion, this is a very logical and rational approach to an important privacy issue.
However, until our laws catch up on this, and if this situation is of a concern to you. There are steps you can take. There are a number of browser add-ons that allow settings to be made by website which ones you want tracking scripts blocked, and which sites you agree to allow through into your session. One such tool is called "Do Not Track Plus." It is a free tool (hard to beat free) and it allows almost total control over your browser's interaction with a given website, and as a bonus it updates itself as new tracking techniques arrive on the horizon. Lastly, many of the popular browsers are implementing settings in the browser itself to control the same, although in my view they are very elementary in their approach and will take some time to mature in their functionality. So at the end of the day, make it your choice and happy browsing!!!