The Ads are out to get you
If you've been suffering from a dose of paranoia every time you go online, you're not alone.
Yes, those Ads that keep popping up related to websites you've visited, and items you've viewed, really are following you. It's a process known as retargeting (also known as remarketing). Basically retargeting is a way for websites to remind you, when you are using the internet or social media, of items on a website that you may have visited and then moved away from without purchasing, though it's not exclusively for e-commerce.
Think of it as a personal virtual shopper helping you to see things that it knows you're interested in, based on the sites or items that you have visited. Then it gives you a call-to-action nudge if you didn't follow through with a purchase. So that item you didn't buy when you were surfing will keep appearing in Ads targeted at you, to remind you how great it is, and how you should go back to the website and buy it.
How is this done? Websites employ a retargeting company to serve personally targeted Ads based on a users surfing history. The retargeting company's code, specific to the website using the service, is embedded in the pages of the website, then everyone who visits those pages has a cookie placed in their browser. That website, via the third party retargeting company, will then target the user with adverts when they are online.
While this is considered an invasion of privacy by some internet users, businesses can reap a Return On Investment ratio of 10:1, so it often pays for a website to use a retargeting service.
If you don't want to receive Google retargeting Ads then you can opt out of them by visiting this link: www.google.com/ads/preferences. There are two options, opt out of interest based Ads on Google Search and Gmail, and opt out of interest based Google Ads across the web. But this won't stop you from being retargeted by other companies offering this service.
For other retargeting companies Ads you may see a little blue triangle or a cross on the upper right corner of an Ad, you can click on this to opt out of retargeted Ads from that particular website's retargeting company. But if a website is using more than one retargeting company you may still get those same Ads delivered again, until you opt out of that retargeting company's Ads. And not all retargeting companies offer the opt out.
From a business point of view, retargeting can be a very useful tool in a competitive market, retail or otherwise. Employing a retargeting company is easy, many offer pay-as-you-go options instead of lengthy contracts. Typically your website will need a Privacy Statement notifying users that cookies are employed throughout the site. And you can either provide your own artwork for Ads, or some companies have inhouse designers that will take care of that too.
So, whether you like retargeted Ads or hate them, they are growing in use. Websites are always competing for site users hard earned cash, and most will use any means possible to make sure that they have the best chance, over their competitors, of getting a potential customer to part with it. If you already feel that privacy is being eroded uncontrollably then yes, as soon as any of us venture online we are parting with large amounts of information, which is rabidly digested and used to enter almost every aspect of our online life.
On the plus side, websites using retargeted Ads are often able to trim their advertising budgets in other areas. So if a website is ultimately spending less money to get business, because they are targeting users that they know are interested in their products, then maybe their prices reflect this, and everyone benefits... or perhaps you forgot which site had that perfect widget you now want to buy, with retargeting you'll conveniently be reminded where it is.