How To Stop Google From Following You

A simple tool lets you opt out of advertising programs that track your Web clicks

Surfing Anonymously

illustration by Bryan Christie

Hundreds of thousands of Web sites show ads provided by Google, such as those little text ads that offer you everything from diets to dog training. Now Google has announced plans to track your clicks across all these sites, and then serve up ads personalized to your tastes. Visit a bunch of electronics-related sites, say, and the next site you view may show you an ad for the latest must-have gadget, even if you're now reading about ways to reduce stress through yogic meditations.

As Big Brother as it sounds, this is actually something that many advertising companies already do. But don't worry: There's a way to stop Google--and all the others--from prying.

First, Google has offered up several ways to change and reduce the info it stores about you. Using its new Ads Preferences Manager, you can delete any of the interests that Google believes you have, such as Entertainment or Travel. You can even add interests, if you happen to like personalized advertising.

If you don't want Google to store any information at all, you can click "Opt Out" on their Preferences page. That gets rid of the "cookie," or little ID code saved in your browser, that Google uses to recognize you when you visit one of its advertising partners. (More info on Google's tracking method here.) (Funnily enough, opting out assigns you a different cookie instead, one that lets Google remember your browser as one it can't collect info about.)

Although it isn't well-publicized, many other Internet advertisers offer a way to opt out of their programs, too. Free yourself from dozens at once at Network Advertising Initiative, whose site shows you which ad networks are currently tracking you and lets you opt out of all of them with a click.

To learn about other ways that sites can track you--and how to stop it--read our recent ["Ask A Geek" column.