What Does Dad Really Want for Father's Day? His Web Browser May Know Better Than You Do

13/06/2013 13:52 BST | Updated 12/08/2013 10:12 BST
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First, let me make something completely clear. I'm a father of two boys, aged 10 and 13, so I feel it's important to say that I in no way endorse a detailed examination of your father's browsing history. The good news is you won't have to; literally thousands of companies exist to do exactly that and they are experts at using all the relevant information to discover what your Dad may actually be interested in putting on his shelf, in the closet, or out in the garage.

Last year consumers spent millions of pounds on gifts for Father's Day, so it's no surprise that advertisers do whatever they can to get a piece of that summertime spending action. Recent research has shown that not only is online data tracking on the rise, growing at a rate of 53% in 2012, but more and more consumers are responding to targeted advertisements while they're shopping online.

The way this works is actually pretty simple, even if the technology behind the scenes can get extremely complex. Let's say your dad spends his morning reading a couple of articles about improving his golf swing and then checks the weather reports for the upcoming pro tournament. Web sites are full of invisible bits of code - called tags, scripts, or pixels - that record that the person using that particular web browser was looking at golfing sites. It stores this information in your dad's web browser. Later, as he's reading the latest news headlines or checking a stock price, advertisers can use his golf enthusiasm to show him an offer for new clubs or a great deal on lessons.

We took a look at some dad-oriented sites on both sides of the pond and discovered that in the month of May alone, visitors to those sites encountered 463 distinct tracking companies. (Sites surveyed were Men's Health, Ask Men, Best Buy, Currys, B&Q, Home Depot, Sky Sports, and ESPN).

Whether you're looking for sports scores, checking out do-it-yourself resources, shopping for electronics, or looking for advice on men's issues, the online marketing industry knows exactly what it is you're interested in. So peeking over dad's shoulder might give you some insight into something he'd be happy to receive on Father's Day - but this tracking can work both ways.

Say you're shopping for your dad's favourite brand of shoes to surprise him with a new pair. If he sits down at the same computer and sees his shoes following him around the web, the surprise may be ruined (we dads are pretty clever after all). Or maybe your dad is the kind of guy that is a little creeped out by all this tracking in the first place. So what can you do to avoid giving away your shopping spree, or to help your dad keep his interests to himself?

Every browser offers the ability to delete cookies - the files where your interests are stored. New cookies are delivered every time you visit a site and keeping them clear may mean that login information you'd like to save or site-specific settings you'd prefer to keep is lost. There are also emerging ideas like the Do Not Track signal, which sends a message to the site owner and advertising companies that you don't want your interests kept and used for marketing. But each company treats that request differently and some may ignore it completely.

The best bet to steer clear of behavioural marketing online is to employ a privacy-oriented browser extension. Ghostery and extensions like it work by scanning pages for all of those companies and blocking the ones that make you uncomfortable. You can even set them up to allow tracking on some sites and prevent it on others, allowing you to take advantage of some of those deals but helping to manage your data in places you'd rather not add to your profile of interests.

Dads can be notoriously hard to shop for - and the tired old joke of a new pair of socks or an ugly tie is important to avoid at all costs. So whether you're relying on online data collectors to help you with your shopping decisions, or you're looking to give the gift of privacy - let your web browser help make this Father's Day special.