We’re all aware that we’re being tracked online – but what you might not be aware of is just how pervasive the snooping is, how the biggest data trawlermen – Google, Facebook and others – are tracking what you’re doing when visiting even the most obscure of blogs. I’m not talking about government snooping: the NSA and GCHQ’s Hoover-like (in both senses) attempts to learn everything about everyone to hopefully stumble upon something pertinent about terrorists – but commercial companies that are using sophisticated (or, if you prefer, sneaky) tactics to get to know your interests and habits better to better sell you stuff.

One key tactic here is for the likes of Google, Facebook et al to offer free tools to those creating websites to help make them more appealing to look at, or easier for you to interact with, or to help site designers to encourage you to share their information with their friends. These lead to more traffic for sites that rely on advertising, more sales for sites offering goods and services, or at least you thinking more highly of the company behind it (which will lead to more sales in the end).

These tools usually include free assets that can be embedded in websites to make adding them as easy as possible. But within these assets are graphics or other elements hosted by the company providing the tools, so it knows when you visit those sites – and if you happen to be logged into one of the tools’ provider's sites at the same time then it knows who you are too. From this it can build up an increasingly detailed profile of who you are and how best you things you may (or may not) want.

So how does this work in practice?

Google Fonts

Google offers a wide selection of free fonts that everyone from leading news sites to your aunt’s WordPress blog about knitting is using because they’re a) free and b) give site designers a chance to make the text on their sites look better than the standard Ariel, Verdana, Courier sets (though, of course, by letting people choose their own fonts, much worse). Large sites with properly set up hosting can host the fonts themselves, but the WordPress site your aunt’s getting for free is almost certainly using versions of the fonts hosted by Google (as WordPress’s own templates are set up that way to keep things as simple as possible) – as are many other blogs are many other platforms.

If you’re logged into any Google service – from Gmail and Google Maps to Google+ and YouTube – and you visit a site using Google Fonts, bingo, Google knows.

Social share buttons

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, they all have easy-to-add ‘widgets’ that make it easy for a web developer to install social sharing buttons on a site. These in turn make it easy for you to share articles and pages with your friends and colleagues – helping push the site out to a wider audience.

Some major sites will have created their own buttons, but most seem happy to use each network’s standard one - especially as these allow counters of how many shares a page or article has had – as pages that have been shared by others are more likely to be shared by new readers/visitors. Again, these buttons include graphics that are hosted by the social network behind them – because, of course, it makes it quicker for the developer to add it to the page. And again, if you’re logged into Facebook and you visit a site with a ‘Share on Facebook’ button, Facebook knows.

Buy it on Amazon

Companies can have a little ‘Buy from Amazon’ button on each page for a particular item they make that links to the page where Amazon sells that item. This could be a simple graphic that’s a link to a particular page – but why do that when you can get a customised one that you can tailor the design of to your brand or site, or lets customers make a choice about the product (such as the size of a piece of clothing or number of items) before going to the Amazon site (which again helps maximise sales).

I’m guessing by this point you’re not going to be in the slightest surprised that the custom button includes an image tracked by Amazon – who could then offer you that product again next time you visit the Amazon to get your Mum that baking book she wants for her birthday. Creepy much?

So what can we do?

To avoid this kind of tracking you could ensure you log out of Google services, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Amazon et al when you’re done. Or you could use a different browser for web surfing than for social networking. And another one for Amazon. Though either approach could be tricky as for most of us there is no divide between the networks and the rest of the web – we click on links from social networking sites and within search engines, and share stories from the web socially.

Or perhaps you don’t care that Google knows you looked at a pan last Thursday and is going to keep offering you ads for pans even after you bought one from Tesco on Saturday (which you bought in a real store, completely stuffing your profile). But perhaps you clicked on a link from a press release about something that ‘lets you feel the Internet’ and it turns out to be an Internet-enabled dildo and you really don’t want to be getting lots of ads for that – especially when your Mum comes round.

So maybe we should just install that browser extension that opens random websites and add so much noise to our profiles we just get random ads again. You know, like back when the Internet was all about dancing hamsters and Zombo.com.

Top image: iStockphoto