Location-based Advertising Goes Wrong; Clues about Dodgy Advertising

If you’re an astute observer, you might have noticed some elements – for example, advertising or some other content – on overseas web sites sometimes have some element on them that refers to the city in which you’re living in.

It might seem like an astonishing coincidence that an article on the Toronto Times or the South Xihuan Observer just happens to have something like this on their website at the exact same time you just happened to click through from Google… but it isn’t. It is the result of location-based advertising – detecting some information about you from your web browser and figuring out where you are. Usually this is done by your IP address and it is a simple look-up in some database that maintains a list of how geographical locations map to certain IP ranges (colloquially referred to as “GeoIP”).

This is not an exact science, and as this screengrab from msnbc.com shows, sometimes things can go wrong:

This is probably just a simple programming error – the “REGION” tag should have been replaced with my actual region.

This is mostly a fascinatingly boring example of a web site bug.

The only interesting thing is that it clearly highlights that the module with that error is engaging in deception to try to trick you into clicking on it. Clearly, this is not a “new trick in your region” – it is some bullshit generic factoid, presumably about car insurance, that they’re trying to bait you into clicking by implying that it is related to where you live.

There are, of course, other location-based clues in this (rather poor) ad – it has what is pretty clearly a US police department patrol car, and the text of the ad refers to “miles per day” – so hopefully even the casual Australian Internet user would start hearing alarm bells.

While it almost certainly isn’t a scam and probably poses no real “danger”, it’s important for people to be alert for little tricks like this that attempt to change your behaviour by appealing to you by “hitting you at home”, so to speak.

Advertising Tricks Using GeoIP

This story does not make web advertisers look good, although it’s almost so obviously phony that it barely warrants mentioning.

I randomly clicked on an island ad on a site that I was visiting (I sometimes do this to give them a click-through and show some support).

I got sent to the URL http://www.newswebdaily.com/health/white-teeth/index1.php, which then redirects to a new URL with a few different parameters in the query string.

It’s an ad that tells the story of Becky Bell, a teacher who wanted to try a teeth-whitening product:

For a split second, I thought “wow, that’s weird – she’s in Brisbane, Queensland, just like me!” Then I decided that seemed a bit too much like a coincidence, so I activated my US-based proxy server (handy for web development and testing) and got the following page:

So, to be crystal clear – this ad changes based on the location that you are viewing the page from, presumably to give you some feeling of confidence that it was a “local gal” that benefited from this product. Clearly, Becky Bell is not from Brisbane and Dallas at the same time.

Moral of the story: beware of advertising that just so happens to have your exact city and country in it like this.