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A new definition of “online social networks”

How much do online marketers really know about you?

How much do online marketers really know about you?

“How did Facebook advertisers know I think James Franco is hot?”

Have you ever wondered if Google employees read your email? You’re not alone. Audience targeting in online advertising may seem creepy when you don’t understand how it works. And it’s even more threatening when the investigation of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! by data-protection agencies across the world is all over the headlines.

Let’s clear the air. No, online marketers do not know your name or address. And no, we don’t have a Jack Bauer operation seeking compromising information that we can turn around and sell to advertisers. Nor do we know the details of your skinny-dipping rendezvous that you emailed your best friend about, or that you’re searching for information about basophobia because your couch potato syndrome has taken a turn for the worse. So, next time you see an online advertisement that seems so perfect for you that you could have written it yourself, don’t worry — nobody’s watching you or reading your emails word for word.

Instead, take a moment to thank marketers for saving you time and energy searching for the right products and services. We categorize people based on their trail of “cookie” crumbs (the websites they visit) and show them things they like — or at least what we think they will like.

Just think. There are people out there thinking about you — not you, Fred Dewlap of Wilmington, but you who visited, NYTimes Health and and typed “workouts for men” into the search query field on Those people, online marketers, are offering suggestions and tips about things you might be interested in. You might even call them your online friends.

The next time you’re totally freaked out that ads for cheap replacement phones flood your screen five minutes after you flushed your IamaGeniusPhone down the toilet, breathe easy. There’s not a peeping Tom outside your bathroom window. The ad could have been displayed because the sites you frequent place you in the “New Tech Geek” audience segment. Or because the IamaGeniusPhone advertisers bought related keywords that you used when you emailed your buddy your tale of misfortune (the system auto-displayed the ad). Go ahead, click on the ad and check out your options, ’cause hey, could online marketers be any more on target?

So no, Google employees are not reading your email. Nor will they whisper targeted messages in your ear while you’re on your cell phone. C’mon, if China can let Google search back in, you can give online marketers a try.

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