How Your Favorite Retailer Is Spying on You

Companies have eyes all over the web, and they know your browsing history.

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Do you ever feel like your favorite retailers are watching you? If so, your paranoid tendencies are right on target, because they are.

I first got the sense that a company was spying on me when I noticed that each time I ordered baby food, bibs, or baby clothes from Diapers.com, the exact same items – I mean the precise outfit, or brand of food – would show up in an advertisement for Diapers.com on unrelated websites that I was visiting, such as the “mommy forum” I frequent.

What could possibly explain that? Surely it was not a complete coincidence. But how was it possible for Diapers.com to follow me to unrelated websites with targeted advertising? And even if they were able to master that technological feat, weren’t they wasting their advertising dollars on me anyway, since I had just purchased those items and therefore didn’t need any further persuading to do so?

Like a good reporter, I tweeted my confusion to see if I could get to the bottom of the story. Within a half-hour, a representative from Diapers.com had left me a voicemail, proving that Twitter has become more effective for getting answers than many corporate media offices.

The rep, Nicole Perri, explained that Diapers.com uses an online advertising service, TellApart, which buys ad space around the Internet and posts ads from Diapers.com to whatever websites customers are visiting. The technique, called “retargeting,” showcases items that you recently viewed. “If you purchased them, you’re probably not going to be swayed,” explains Perri. “But if you were just browsing, you would likely click on the image and make a purchase.”

In other words, Diapers.com is spying on me, and all of its other customers, with the hope of getting browsers to return to their shopping carts and buy whatever they were looking at. It makes sense, but it still creeps me out, although no more than the ads that pop up on Gmail that are related to my email conversations. (I talk about my baby, and Gmail advertises baby formula on the top of my inbox.)

[See excerpts from my recent interview with Diapers.com co-founders Vinit Bharara and Marc Lore.]

Have you, too, noticed signs of corporate espionage while you browse the Internet? Does it remind you of George Orwell, or do you find it harmless and potentially helpful?

Follow Alpha Consumer on Twitter at www.twitter.com/alphaconsumer.