We Live in a Weird, Dystopian World
Machines are trying to take over our minds. They are using images and messages to tell us what to buy, what to read, what to watch.
And yet, as I write this, A banner ad for couches and a video ad for the Vue are vying for my attention. I don't play video games, and I just bought a couch, so why would I need another one? All this makes me wonder: if machines are going to brainwash me, could they at least be better at it?
I don't want to see ads for things I just bought. I don't want to see ads for things some corporate data classifier thinks I want. Really, ideally, I don't want to see ads at all.
Standing Up to the Machines
I like AdBlock. If I don't want to see ads, it can keep them out of the way. But, it's not perfect. Adblock has the potential to hurt the websites you visit. And, it also helps the companies that are trying to force upon us the very ads we try to avoid(Basically, people with adBlock are highly unlikely to be influenced by ads anyway, so when companies don't need to pay to show ads to them, the ads they do pay for become more effective).
A Beautiful Ad
A third option came to me the other day while I was buying a piece of wall art for my dining room. Buying wall art online is tricky, because:
1. You don't really know how it looks until it arrives
2. You're going to have to look at that piece of art for years
So I was looking, and looking. I looked through different categories, I looked through different styles. I added one piece to my cart, then another, then a third, then removed all three. Finally, I found this canvas of the Santorini hillside that struck me as a perfect dining room addition, and made my purchase.
Why am I talking about my wall art? Because for the next week after I bought it, all I got were ads for different pictures. Pictures of city skylines, luscious landscapes, intriguing geometric collages. And you know what? It wasn't that bad at all. Actually, having beautiful images on every site I visited enhanced my internet browsing experience.
The critical insight came a week later, though, when those ads faded away. They were replaced by new ads that reflected my typical browsing patterns. I realized, then, that I could control the ads that were shown to me by taking advantage of the patterns marketers used to determine how to advertise.
Refining My Technique
I began experimenting to see what it took to get marketers to send their ads my way. I defined success by a simple metric: get a web page to fill with ads from only one company.
Note the ads on the top and right
This wasn't easy. Companies are wary of low-conversion clicks, and so they have worked hard to weed out the digital window shoppers. Eventually, however, this is what I was able to work out: When you visit webstores, and then leave, the website owners have to figure out whether or not to remarket to you. That is to say, they ideally want to discover if you want to buy something, then remind you that you want to buy it even after your leave. Thus, they are willing to pay more, and do more remarketing, the farther into their sales pipeline you get, because that signals that you more likely to spend money on their site.
So I wanted to behave in a way that signaled to these sites that I wanted to buy something. I eventually discovered a few techniques that, when properly applied, can trick ad algorithms into thinking you are more likely to buy something from a site:
- Begin With the End in Mind: If a site has various categories or segments, choose one. Someone who is making a purchase usually has something in mind when they visit the site.
- Quality, not Quantity: Lots of fast page hits looks like a robot, not like a human who wants to make a purchase. Spend time on each page you visit, interact with the page, leave and come back to individual items. Feel free to even leave the site entirely, and come back later.
- Go Through the Purchasing Process: The single biggest thing you can do is act like you are going to buy something specific. Putting one or two items in your cart is a huge signal to remarketing algorithms. Starting the checkout process, then abandoning it, will often cause a complete remarketing ad blitz to befall your browser.
- Show Them You Are Still Interested: Do you start seeing the ads you want? Click them! Nothing will show that you still engaged and ready to buy than clicking on the ads every once in a while and heading back to the site.
With these techniques, I can bend the Ad algorithms to my will. Within 5 minutes I can have ads for whatever product I want in whatever frequency I wish.
Some Digital Recipes
One interesting point: Google Ads seems to have 'stereotypes.' That is, if you start to exhibit patterns matching one of their stereotypical profiles, they will show you related items to that profile without you even looking for that item.
For your browsing pleasure - I have created some 'recipes.' A series of websites and events you can follow to trick google Ads into thinking you are a different person in about ten minutes. Note: These are not my stereotypes, nor are they caricatures that I endorse as being representative of larger groups. These are patterns that I have noticed in my ads based on certain behaviors:
- Male Hiker
- REI: https://www.rei.com/h/camping-and-hiking
- Filter by men
- Filter by brand: Arc'teryx
- Notice they are way too expensive - switch to filter by JanSport
- Click on of the backpacks - stay on the page for a little bit
- click on the 'backpacking packs' link to go back to the packs
- Filter by gender again
- Click on a gregory pack
- Choose a size, add to cart
- Repeat for a pair of boots
- go to cart -> proceed to checkout -> enter your first name -> navigate away
- Female Upscale Shopper
- Michael Kors: https://www.michaelkors.com
- Enter in a name / fake email for the signup page that shows up
- women -> accessories -> sunglasses
- go through each frame shape, then settle on Aviator
- Find a pair you like(make sure to look through the options)
- assort through the colors and options
- Open in new tab: http://www.ray-ban.com/
- navigate to women's sunglasses, repeat above steps
- head back to Michael Kors, add some glasses to your cart
- begin the checkout process, then abandon it
- repeat for shoes, settle on a pair of wedges, and maybe a pair of sandals
- ProBoarder: http://www.proboardshop.com/boardshop.html
- At this point you should know what to do
- Find related products, scope them for a little bit, add some to cart
- find some other products, maybe another site
- play around, look at different items and categories, and eventually settle on two or three things
A New Type of Adblock
None of this is particularly hard to automate. I have been thinking of building a chrome extension to accomplish this. You can have the best of both worlds: support your favorite websites, and thwart obnoxious ads. What are your thoughts? Is this something you would like to see exist? Email me your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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