Why Barnes & Noble keeps offering to sell me a book I wrote

As I described here, I’ve been baffled by why Barnes & Noble keeps showing me ads that include a book I wrote.  I was finally smart enough to track this down and, as people suggested, it has to do with cookies.  Turns out there’s a little hard-to-see link in these  ads.  Click it, and it brings you to an explanatory page that includes an opt-out option.  The company behind the ads is called Criteo, and the technology is called personalized retargeting.  It’s been around for years.  Here’s a New York Times article about it from 2010:

People have grown accustomed to being tracked online and shown ads for categories of products they have shown interest in, be it tennis or bank loans.

Increasingly, however, the ads tailored to them are for specific products that they have perused online. While the technique, which the ad industry calls personalized retargeting or remarketing, is not new, it is becoming more pervasive as companies like Google and Microsoft have entered the field. And retargeting has reached a level of precision that is leaving consumers with the palpable feeling that they are being watched as they roam the virtual aisles of online stores.

So, my cookies tell the software that I’ve visited the pages for Richard Bowker novels on the Barnes & Noble web site.  And the software puts up ads that keep reminding me of these very fine novels until I break down and buy one.  This is one of those technologies that is equal parts helpful and creepy. I’m not quite ready to get off the grid, like Jack Reacher, but maybe the day will come.

What does Barnes & Noble know about me?

I occasionally look at a liberal-leaning website called Talking Points Memo. It displays ads in the right column of their web page.  One of them is for Barnes & Noble, and it features four books I might be interested in buying from http://www.bn.com.  Today, three of them were thrillers or mysteries by authors II’d never heard of.  The fourth was The Portal, an alternative history novel by Richard Bowker.  Hey, that’s me!

So, how is B&N figuring out what books to display in the ad?  They could be looking at my sales history, but that would tell them I have already bought The Portal from them. (I know that sounds pitiful, but I wanted to goose the novel’s sales rank when it first came out; I promise I won’t do it again.)  Surely that should factor into their algorithm.  Are they tracking which pages I visit on their web site?  But I have never gone anywhere near the other authors whose books they want me to buy.  Is my publisher paying B&N to improve the book’s ad placement generally?  If so, they didn’t bother to tell me.

I find it very mysterious.