A Look Into Social Media Ad Targeting

February 2, 2014 Updated: April 24, 2016


The other day I was looking at vacuum cleaners. My old one has served me well in the last five years, but the cheap appliance just can’t handle the volume of grime that gathers in my child and pet filled home any longer. Amazon was my port of call, as I began to compare different brands and types, trying to figure out what ‘whirlwind’ technology truly implies.

Later that day, I was browsing a couple of social media websites when something caught my eye. It was an ad for vacuum cleaners. What a coincidence, right?! Not really…this is called ad targeting, and it is everywhere.

But what exactly is ad targeting, and how does it work. Should we be worried about privacy issues related to such targeting?

Let’s break it down.

What Is Social Media Ad Targeting?

Social Media Ad Targeting

Ad targeting is exactly what it sounds like. Social media sites (and other sites not socially related) use information provided from your computer to specify ads that might appeal to you. This is a far cry from the general shots in the dark that they used to use. Those were mostly useless, hence the creation of annoying pop-ups that tried to trick you into following their link.

Social media ad targeting has become more advanced than ever in the last year. Which is why you are seeing a lot more of them in the sidebar of your friends feed, or in recommended pages and accounts through sites like Facebook and Twitter in particular.

You will also notice ad targeting elsewhere, such as in Google Search results, or any random site that has Google Ads.

How Does Social Media Ad Targeting Work?

On social media sites themselves, it takes information from several sources. One is your social media activity and profile, which already has plenty of data for them to stalk. Everything you put on a site like Facebook is essentially owned by the site. They can do whatever they want with it, from making targeted ads to selling that information to marketers and corporations.

When you visit pages, they log that. When you join a group, they log that. When you use a hashtag, they log that. And they can use it as they see fit.

Other things they use include your location, any mobile check-ins you may have listed, and even your browser history. If you have visited a website recently, or done a product search such as I did with vacuums, they use that to catch your attention.

Does Social Media Ad Targeting Violate User Privacy?


The simple answer: yes. But no more than social media has always violated user privacy. Anyone who accepts a social media sites terms and agreements gives them full access and ownership to all data you provide. That has been the case for years, and while users might make a fuss when the story once against cycles in the media, we still all have a Facebook and Twitter account, at the very least.

Basically, they have always done this kind of thing. When they sell your data to a marketing group that info is used to sell things back to you. The difference now is that we are seeing the effects more directly. The only thing that has really changed is the subtlety.

What Can I Do?

Duck Duck Go

Not much, other than remove yourself from social media. You can get an ad blocker, which will keep those ads from showing. But that might break into the revenue of some of the less wealthy social media sites you enjoy, which could have consequences. Not every social networking site is Facebook, after all.

You could delete your more invasive accounts, and use a smaller search engine that values privacy such as Duck Duck Go. But unless you are using some kind of proxy your data will still be logged on the sites you visit from there.

When it comes down to it, the only true thing we can do is lobby for better user protection laws. That will be a slow battle, but in an age where privacy has become the hot button topic of the day, it is a fight we can win.

Image Credits: social media, advertising, privacy.