Turning data into cash: The creepy side of Facebook’s ad engine

Ever looked up a product only to see it advertised on your Facebook wall a few days later? Sure you have. Targeted advertising is the new norm.
Privacy news
4 mins
How Facebook targets you with ads.

With all the information people are swapping online these days, companies have become much better at pinpointing who to market to and when to do it. It comes as no surprise, then, to hear how Facebook plays an enormous part in that.

Facebook makes most of its money off ads. In fact, Facebook’s ad platform accounts for 97% of FB’s ad revenue. And with over $29.6 billion in revenue last year alone, that’s a lot of ads.

If you see a ‘like’ button next to an article, the chances are that information is going straight over to Facebook.

The reason Facebook’s ad platform is so successful is that it’s terrifyingly accurate. First, it’s highly customizable—advertisers can target nearly every aspect of an audience. Second, it takes data from multiple sources to zero-in on user specifics.

Here’s how it works.

An inside look at Facebook’s massive ad engine

Facebook’s ad service is broken down into four main topics: demographics, interests, behavior, and more.

Advertisers can choose to target their ads based on either city, state, zip code or even as accurate as individual neighborhoods. From there, they can decide to target men, women, or both of any age group.

How Facebook targets you

Now here’s where it starts to get invasive. Once the basics are filled out, advertisers can then choose specific interests, behaviors and even target people based on personal life events.

As an example, ExpressVPN decided to target males and females between the ages of 18 and 35 who liked the latest Marvel movie, Logan, because that film rocked (and it includes a large enough group to get an accurate representation of how this service works).

As you can see, there are hundreds of sub-topics within the Logan interest group, including various other X-Men movies, books, and actors.

Facebook can target a very specific demographic

Facebook could target Marvel movie lovers.

After setting the initial parameters, marketers can move on to more nitty-gritty topics like a target audience’s relationship status, where they went to school, the types of clothes they buy, the number of pets they own, how often they exercise and which sports teams they like.

It’s even possible to target people on not just their political preferences but by how often they tend to mention politics.

Facebook can target you based on your political preferences.

Marketers can also choose to narrow their search by selecting such minute topics like charitable donations, when and how often a person travels, and exactly how much money they make. And this is just scratching the surface.

Facebook knows where you go.

There’s even an option to select users who have an anniversary coming up.

Facebook knows your anniversary.

Once marketers have all this information in place, they can then focus on more intrusive sub-topics like a target audience’s multicultural affinity.

Target an audience with Facebook.
How does Facebook designate whether a user’s activity aligns with ‘African American multicultural affinity’?

Virtually every aspect of a person’s day-to-day life is up for grabs. There’s not much left to the imagination when it comes to picking an audience. And every time an advertiser adds more requirements the potential reach decreases.

Scary, right?

How to hide your information from Facebook

First off, decide whether you want to be included in Facebook’s massive ad service. As privacy has become a growing concern among users over the past few years, sites like Facebook have taken great strides to offer more elbow room when it comes to your personal information and how it’s used.

To change your ad settings, check your ad preferences here.

How to check your Facebook ad preferences.

You can customize how you’re served ads or even opt out of FB’s ad service altogether. Though it’s important to note that while you may choose to avoid ads on FB, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re exempt from having your information collected.

Extra steps you can take to stop Facebook targeting you with ads

Another simple step to help decrease your digital footprint is to log out of Facebook after you use it. Facebook already knows more about you than your significant other, but when you leave Facebook on in the background while you browse, the site’s algorithms can collect search data based on the sites you visit and things you like.

If you see a ‘like’ button next to an article, the chances are that information is going straight over to Facebook.

Additionally, you might want to limit what you like and what you share on Facebook. Because marketers can target nearly everything about you, giving them less information to work with gives you more control over your anonymity.

As Facebook’s ad revenue jumped nearly 30% in the last quarter of 2016, you can expect these ads to become more prominent, more targeted, and increasingly more accurate.

For now, at least, you still have a say in how you receive them.

Featured image: BrianAJackson / Deposit Photos