How Twitter tracks the websites you visit, and how to stop it


TwitterLast Thursday, Twitter announced the global availability of tailored audiences; promoted tweets that are targeted at individuals based on the websites they have visited.

It seemed like a good opportunity to explain how Twitter is going to do it, how it has been using a different technique to track the websites you visit for some time now, and how to turn it all off if you want to.

Tailored audiences

Tailored audiences is Twitter’s take on retargeting – a behavioural advertising technique that allows companies to continue advertising to somebody who has visited and then left their website (typically because they visited but didn’t buy anything).

Retargeted ads are the ones that seemingly follow you around – no matter which website you’re on, the same advert appears over and over.

In theory, behavioural advertising is good news all round because advertisers are less likely to waste time and money talking to the wrong people and consumers are more likely to see adverts for things they might actually want.

Unfortunately while consumers get a share of the upside they have the downside to themselves; in order for it all to work somebody, somewhere has to collect, store and analyse lots and lots of information about what those consumers have been doing.

For users who care about their privacy now and in the future that’s a significant downside, even when the data that’s collected is aggregated and anonymised.

The privacy situation is made worse by the online advertising community’s strong inclination towards opting users into behavioural advertising silently and with the assumption that users are OK with it.

This default opt-in approach is doubly disappointing from Twitter who has often been ahead of its rivals in adopting privacy technologies like HTTPS, Do Not Track and forward secrecy.

To make tailored audiences work, Twitter has teamed up with ten ‘ad partners’. These ad partners are well established advertising companies that already engage in things like retargeting and loyalty programs.

The ad partners will tell Twitter when a user has visited a website that’s signed up to tailored audiences so that it knows it can retarget that website’s promoted tweets to the same user when they log on to Twitter.

Fortunately Twitter has made it easy to opt out:

  1. Log in to Twitter
  2. Click on the Settings and help sprocket icon
  3. Click Settings
  4. Select Security and Privacy
  5. Un-tick Promoted content.

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Unusually, you can also opt out by enabling the almost-but-not-entirely useless Do Not Track function in your browser.

Neither of these measures prevents the ad companies from tracking you on 3rd party websites but they do stop the ad companies from passing the tracking data to Twitter.

The ad partners themselves maintain their own individual opt outs (which should opt you out of their entire ad networks and not just tailored audiences). Links to the ad partner opt-out pages are provided below:

Now, as I mentioned in my introduction, tailored audiences isn’t the only way that Twitter can track the websites you visit so let’s take a look at tailored suggestions.

Tailored suggestions

Tailored suggestions is a list of users who Twitter thinks you might like to follow that appears under ‘Who to follow’ on various pages on the micro-blogging site.

Twitter tries to work out if you should follow somebody by comparing the websites their followers visit with the websites that you go to. Although it relies on knowing which websites you visit it doesn’t use the tailored audiences ad partners to get that data.

The data for tailored suggestions is gathered entirely from the blue tweet buttons that are embedded into websites (like this one) that want to make tweeting their content a little bit easier.

This is possible because of the way that the buttons are embedded. When a browser loads a web page with an embedded tweet button it has to request the code for the tweet button from

That request is like any other HTTP request for any other web page and will contain a referer header (which can identify where you are) and any cookies your browser has for the domain (which can identify who you are).

So the very act of looking at a web page with a tweet button on it can tell Twitter you are looking at that web page (this is also true of Facebook Like buttons, Pinterest Pins and all the other popular social media ‘widgets’).

Fortunately it’s just as easy to switch off tailored suggestions as it is to switch of tailored audiences:

  1. Log in to Twitter
  2. Click on the Settings and help sprocket icon
  3. Click Settings
  4. Select Security and Privacy
  5. Un-tick Personalization

Twitter PersonalizationAs with tailored audiences, Twitter will also disable tailored suggestions if you have Do Not Track enabled in your browser.

The methods described in this article for disabling tracking are the vendors’ own methods and following them should ensure that the sites affected stop tracking you but continue to operate correctly.

If you don’t trust vendors that rely on advertising dollars to manage your privacy or if you’re looking for a more comprehensive anti-tracking solution then you might prefer to manage your privacy with a browser plugin like Ghostery or Lightbeam.