How Companies Track You Online (Revealed!)

Last Updated: October 24, 2022
Companies gather information from users in a myriad of ways. Some data mining campaigns have legit purposes, while many are much shadier than that. Let’s take a look at how companies track you online and what they might do with that data.
How Companies Track You Online
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In the world of digitalization, everything is traceable. You may think your information is confidential, but that is seldom the case.

Hence you may wonder how companies track you online.

Whatever we are doing online is being constantly monitored by tech giants or the company we are working for.

This may scare you, but unfortunately, this is the new normal; it is the norm of the tech era where everything is now housed online for better convenience and user experience.

With the invention of the internet came many advantages, such as ease in transmitting data and speed to get your daily chores done.

However, the more information you give online, the more access you are giving companies to your personal life; hence it is better that you know how companies track your information in the first place.

Why Do Companies Collect Your Data?

There are many reasons why companies are collecting your personal data from your online activities. Sometimes it’s just really about business.

1. Better Customer Experience

For many companies enhancing the customer experience is an important thing to do; because the better the user journey online, the better for the company in terms of online sales, etc. hence when companies collect data, it is a good way to understand what a customer wants.

Perhaps a few items on the company’s websites are of interest to you, then the brand would want to know more about you and the information related to your interest.

This way the company can show you the relevant Ads and get you to purchase a product.

2. Companies Use The Information To Build A Marketing Strategy

Marketing is all about customization; hence if you want people to buy your service or product, then you have to relate with them.

A one size fits all approach while marketing is never the answer and cannot sustain in this day and age that is why it is interesting to know how companies track you online.

Hence most companies resort to collecting data online that helps them to understand what is trending these days and whether their marketing strategy is working or not.

Segmenting the target audience is now a need of the hour as you cannot just use marketing tactics for everyone; that is why to cater to such strategies the doors are now opened to collect data from your online activities, including your phones.

3. Sell Data to Maintain Cash Flow

Data is crucial for every business; however, it is even more necessary for some.

This is because some companies stand to profit from selling data, such as data broker companies or data service provider companies that sell information to customers.

Such businesses have risen in the industry alongside big data.

These businesses are all about collecting information about your online activities and selling them to other businesses to get more revenue streams.

These organizations are why you should know how companies track you online.

A few advertising agencies also benefit from getting data of millions of users as they are very valuable to help businesses chalk out better marketing strategies to promote their products.

Hence the demand to collect data is increasing by the day, and companies are not coming slowly with their strategies to get more of it through digital modes.

4. To Protect Data

There are some companies, such as in the banking industry, that collect sensitive data to improve their security measures.

For example, some banks will use user voice recognition data to access sensitive information or to protect their banks from fraudulent activity.

Banks will gather data from users to improve their security messages and since technology is becoming ever so sophisticated, more companies will find ways to collect and contextualize data for everything, including customers’ online activity.

How Companies Track You Online in 2022

Wondering how companies track you online? Since the invention of technology and the online world, companies have been collecting data of their users.

However, in recent times, they have been aggressively collecting data for the above reasons. 

Since your information is getting tracked online, you should know the ways it’s been done.

One of the most popular ways companies are now tracking your information is through cookies.

Yes, cookies! Most of us non-tech savvy people don’t even know what cookies are, yet we press “accept” on the toolbar when we visit a website.

One thing to note about cookies is that nearly any website that you will visit will want you to select whether you want cookies activated while you are on the website or not.

Hence all these websites and the company running the website is tracking your information online. They will track you through chunks of data on your web browser.

This does not stop here; these companies will also track your smartphone and other devices you use to access the online world.

Hence you should stop wondering how companies track you online, because the answer is your phone and other devices. 

When companies collect information on you, they will create user profiles that are specific to you.

This allows the company to track other devices, too; furthermore, third-party ads displayed to you can also collect your data if you interact with them.

Note that companies that are using your personal data are also selling the same to other companies; hence you must be aware that not everything you do online is just limited to the website you are interacting with.

There are many ways that a company can track your online activities, including cookies; however when you dive deeper into the online world, you will realize that there is more than meets the eyes.

There are several ways you are giving your information to a third party.

1. HTTP Cookies

An HTTP cookie is one of the ways companies can start collecting your data; it is a text file.

This file is then stored in your web browser, which is collected and used to understand your browsing behavior and what you like and do not like.

When you visit any website, cookies will become very responsive, and they will remember what you did when you previously visited the page.

They start storing your information about how you interact with the platform.

Hence, when you return to the same page, the cookies will know who you are and what your preferences are.

That is one way how companies track you online.

This is one of the most popular ways for companies to know who you are and what you would like to see.

Without cookies, there is nothing; a website won’t be able to know much about you and would not remember a thing about a visitor.

Some e-commerce websites operate this way; hence when you purchase an item, it quickly goes into your cart; this is done by using cookies.

So when you are putting an item in your cart, the cookie remembers that you made a purchase and takes a note of it.

If there were no cookies on the website, then no site could track what is added into your cart.

In a way cookie make a purchaser’s life easy by providing a smooth shopping experience online.

However, there are many types of cookies, some are not as important as others.

But if you look at them holistically then they serve three main purposes.

Functional cookies: This is the primary work for cookies that help the website do all the basic tasks.

If cookies do not perform their functional role, you will not date websites that can add your item to the shopping cart.

This is one of the most popular way on how companies track you online.

Analytics cookies: This is one of the ways websites and companies will know who you are and how you are experiencing the journey on the page.

If you have been looking at an item for a long time, the website will know and make a record.

This functionality will help companies to improve their user experience.

Advertising cookies: These cookies track your information regarding what you like or don’t like.

So, for example, if you are interested in buying polka-dotted socks, the website will track this information.

Hence whenever you visit the site, the brand will show you ads for polka-dotted socks.

When an organization is tracking users, it is primarily because they want data for functional, analytical, or marketing reasons.

One more thing to know is that cookies come in a variety of ways, including the above one; you can have temporary ones, persistent ones, or the first or third-party ones.

Some cookies also have very scary names, such as zombie cookies or the super cookies.

2. Session Cookies Against Persistent Cookies

Not all cookies are meant to stay with the website for a long period. Such cookies are called Session Cookies or Persistent Cookies.

Session cookies are only active till you are on the website; hence when you leave, they delete themselves too.

So, if you browsed your favorite brand for your shopping and added a clothing item to the cart, but left the website without checking out; then returning to the page after a while will make you lose your shopping item from the cart.

This means the shopping was stored in Session cookies. This is only a temporary way on how companies track you online.

However, persistent cookies are a bit stubborn, as the name says.

Hence, if you visit a website with persistent cookies on your webpage, your data will be collected and saved for a long time.

So if you have ever been on a website and added in your login credentials, and the website remembers those credentials whenever you return, the data is stored in persistent cookies. 

However, note that these persistent cookies do not stick around for that long, and the website will most likely forget that information after a while.

The best thing about it is that you can also delete persistent cookies.

If you are browsing the internet in incognito mode, then the website will not have any data about you because an incognito mode is a private mode that helps you get rid of any digital footprints.

3. Analytics and Ad Network Cookies

Some cookies are not generated by the company so how companies track you online? Rather these cookies are derived from third-party companies that operate on the webpage you are visiting.

One of these cookies is through analytical services such as Google Analytics.

Google Analytics, as the name says, is owned by the tech giant called Google.

This is one of the best ways for companies to track user data on their websites.

Hence if you are on a website, it is possible that the webpage does not have its own cookies.

Still, Google Analytics is tracking your information on behalf of the webpage. 

This way, website owners can track users’ behavior, which is one of the most popular ways to track information as millions of people use Google Analytics.

Some use different third-party cookie services on their websites.

Companies want to know who visits their web page to know what people like or dislike about their services.

This gives them a good insight into consumer behavior that can help them come up with new products or align their marketing strategy to enhance user experience.

This is one of the best ways on how companies track you online.

Some of the websites will also have third-party ads; all come with their own cookies.

The ad network comprises Google Ad Exchange which tracks users and their information and allows companies to serve tailored or personalized ads on targeted websites.

Hence, if you are interested in getting a cardigan, you will get ads related to the cardigan on the host website.

4. Flash Cookies

Flash cookies are not your average cookies, such as the HTTP ones that are text files.

These text files are usually stored in the web browser; hence you have more autonomy to control or delete them.

However, Flash cookies are a bit more complicated as they store the tracking data on your computer.

The thing with Flash is that the cookies are not found in your web browser because they are stored in an Adobe file, making them harder for individuals to manage or delete.

Nowadays, web browsers can manage HTTP cookies themselves; however, when it comes to flash, it is not the same.

The good thing is that Adobe Flash is not anymore the web standard it used to be, and the google search engines such as Firefox or chrome do not even support Flash.

If you think your browser has Flash, it is important to opt-out of the cookies; the only way you can do this is by opting out of Flash itself.

These days, you can find most web browsers doing that by default hence this is not how companies track you online nowadays.

5. Super Cookies

Super cookie is not really a cookie; however, it is termed as one.

The super cookie has specific functions and is also a way to track your users on the website.

However, if a website uses such cookies, all your data is being tracked as Unique Identifier Headers (UIDHs).

This means that the information is not saved on your computer; it is saved on external servers called the internet service providers (ISP).

Hence, if you could control HTTTP cookies easily by managing or deleting them, you cannot do so with Super Cookies because they are not the same, and they store your data on third-party servers.

That is why you have no control over them. Furthermore, no one knows exactly if these cookies are legal.

In 2016 Verizon was fined $1.3 million for stealing users’ data through super cookies; however, the fine was not huge as the company makes billions of dollars annually.

Hence you must know that if there are super cookies on a web page, the company is tracking your information without your consent and knowledge.

6. Tracking Pixels

Tracking pixels are related to image cookies. Hence when you load an image, it is coded with HTML.

When you stumble upon an image while browsing the internet, the device will send data to the pixels.

The kind of data that will be collected will be the information related to your device, operating system, and screen resolution.

Sometimes they also collect behavioral information, such as what time you looked at the pixel and how you interacted with it.

You will find such pixels all over the web page or even an email thread; they are a good way to keep track of how users view the images.

This is just one more way how companies track you online.

The way they operate is that you will never see these pixels on the web page or in emails; they are usually designed in a way where they merge with the background; hence they are always invisible.

The point of pixels is not to show the user an image but rather to collect information about how you interact with the picture and get more data on the device you are using.

A user has less control over pixels due to them being invisible; however, if you do not want to give your information to companies, you can shut down your images from settings.

But this will seriously hurt your entire user experience of the website.

Furthermore, pixels have come under the scrutiny radar because they never ask for your permission hence all the information collected is without your consent.

How Companies Mine Data Through Smartphone Apps

Track Online Data

Every Apple or Android phone has its own set of device IDs, which is the best way to track more about you.

Hence if you install an application, your app can identify your device through the ID.

However, companies use other ways to track you, but this is one of the best ways to track your device.

An android device ID is called the Google Advertising ID, also known as GAID.

If you want to know your device ID, you can check it from the setting menu, and from there, you can also reset your ID at any time and try to opt out of any custom ads.

However, note if you opt out of custom Ads, it doesn’t mean companies cannot track you; rather, it is just a way to stop seeing those ads.

Furthermore, besides the ID companies are more eager to profile you through your device IMEI number.

When it comes to Apple devices, the ID is called Identify for Advertisers or, in other words, IDFA.

The good thing about apple is that it is more private; hence, you can reset your IDFA with zeroes, making it very difficult for it to get tracked.

1. Cross-Device Tracking

Cross-device tracking means that you will be tracked no matter what device you are currently using.

Hence it is possible that you checked a website through your phone at first and then later through a laptop; the website will know it was you earlier.

There are two ways that companies use cross-device tracking.

Deterministic tracking: Sometimes, your profiles are linked with email addresses which is why it makes it easy for you to track; hence if you are the using the same email, the website will remember you.

In such a way you will find that cross device tracking happens more when you have to create an account.

Probabilistic tracking: This is a bit tricky as this operates without any login credentials; hence companies have to do the guesswork, which is not always accurate.

Hence if you visit a website on one Sunday afternoon in one particular location and then visit the same website from another device, the company will only guess that it is you based on the behaviors it recorded the first time.

2. Geolocation Data: Your Location Is Traceable

Did you know that companies can track you outside the digital world too?

Hence it is not a secret knowledge for those trying to track you as they will know where you are going and how long you spend there.

This is one of the most confidential data that can come into the hands of those you do not permit.

Android and Apple phones have a feature that lets you limit who can track your location; however, this does not mean that companies cannot find out where you are, as the controls are a bit deceiving.

When your location information is out there, it may be sold to third-party companies, as this is the best way to learn more about a particular user’s interest.

Sometimes it’s the best way to get to know someone, so if one app has all your location data, it can be sold to millions of other companies.

If you are not comfortable letting any device know your location, then it is recommended that you switch off the geolocation permission from all the apps so little information is tracked by these apps and sold to other companies.

3. Smart Devices

One thing you should know about smart devices is that they are always tracking you.

Smart devices are now everywhere, from your watch to your speakers such as Amazon Alexa or Google Dot; they constantly listen to what you have to say.

They also track what you are browsing online or what type of music you listen to at home,

Furthermore, the data is not just processed as algorithms that users can’t understand but is also tracked by humans.

At the moment, Amazon has people in every country to track users’ audio, images, and videos.

This goes as far as smart fridges, too; hence when you add or take-out food, the fridge knows; it also knows what you are eating.

Hence all your private lives are out there, and there is nothing to stop these companies from selling this information to third parties.

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Written by Jason Wise

Hi! I’m Jason. I tend to gravitate towards business and technology topics, with a deep interest in social media, privacy and crypto. I enjoy testing and reviewing products, so you’ll see a lot of that from me here on EarthWeb.
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