How search ads work, and how they use your data

Search ads appear on search engine results pages, usually marked with a label like “ad” or “sponsored.” These ads are designed to drive relevant traffic to a website, product, or other service.

How do search ads work?

Search ads are triggered by search queries. For example, if you search Google for “running shoes,” you’ll see ads for different running shoes alongside non-paid (or “organic”) search results. Advertisers will run an ad campaigns that target specific keywords (i.e. the words or phrases in a search query).

Most search engines double as ad platforms, and brands will pay for placement on those platforms in the form of contextual ads (i.e. ads related to a search query). These ads appear above or alongside unpaid, organic results.

But these search engines also track user behavior (including what you search, click, or browse), and record data about the search volume of particular keywords. This data can help the advertiser tailor (or “target”) the ad even beyond the basics of a keyword match.

Competing for ad space: bidding wars

Behind the scenes, advertisers are ruthlessly competing for ad space on a search results page. It’s simple supply and demand: A lot of brands want to appear in SERPs for “running shoes,” but there’s a finite ad inventory (the total number of people searching for that keyword). So brands bid against each other for this real estate, increasing the price of the ad. Less popular keywords (i.e. searches) will be less expensive for advertisers, but with less demand, there’s less money to be made.

Search ad targeting: keywords and user data

Advertisers bid on keywords, but Big Tech search platforms have lots of other data they can use to target users. The more user data that platforms like Google collect, the better they can target the ads they sell; the more effective the ad, the more advertisers will pay for it. In this way, Big Tech turns your data into their profit.

Data-collecting search engines help advertisers target highly specific demographics—like people of a certain age, gender, or location. Or people whose browsing or search history indicates certain interests. Or even people who have visited a brand’s website before.

Note that the narrower the target audience, or the more competition there is for a keyword or demographic, the higher the cost of the ad. For example, it’s more expensive to target the age range 21–23 than ages 20–30, and more expensive to target people in the city of New York than the state of New York.

Conflicting search engine motives: accuracy versus profit

All this data collection and ad targeting is done in the name of making money—showing ads to people more likely to “convert” (i.e. purchase). And while it’s true that search engines need money to survive and function, on some platforms the profit motive can compromise the integrity of search results.

Ultimately, the way that ads are ranked and placed on SERPs comes down to an ad’s quality, relevance, bid amount, and many other factors. Big Tech-powered search engines earn for every impression (how often an ad appears) and every click; thus they’ll favor the most effective ads—those that perform well for common queries, or generate the most clicks—to make more money.

This leads to two undesirable results:

  • Money influences the ordering of ads and information on SERPs (higher ad spend generally leads to higher visibility)
  • It’s easy to perpetuate monopolies (big brands can out-bid small brands, get more ad views and clicks, and thus continue to be ranked higher)

Search ads and data collection concerns

Search ads can be beneficial for both users and advertisers; they can help users find stuff they’re looking for, and advertisers get eyes on their products. They can also support the basic operating costs of the search engine itself.

But most search ads rely on collecting personal data like browsing history, queries, clicks, location, device details, language, and more. In many cases, the bad outweighs the good.

To understand how to combat this data collection, we first have to understand how it’s done.

How search engines collect user data

Big Tech search engines collect your data via cookies, trackers, and other methods. Much of this data collection happens in the background, like when you search Google and click a search result (whether signed into your Google account, or because your device has been fingerprinted). Other types of data collection—like “pixels”—require a brand’s active participation.

Pixels are retargeting tags or codes that brands can add to their websites. These tools enable a company like Google, for example, to track a user’s activity on a brand’s site; that behavior is then integrated into the profile they’ve amassed. This allows a brand to target users who’ve visited their site (or completed some action, like adding an item to their shopping cart) with search ads in Google.

How other parties collect user data

Your data is also collected by individual brands and advertisers, and even third-party data providers. And, regardless of who does the initial collection, the data is often repackaged and sold between third parties. This is commonly known as the surveillance economy.

With so many parties involved, and so many kinds of data being collected, Big Tech’s version of search advertising creates a nightmare for personal privacy.

Legislative protections against data collection

Today, the vast majority of search ad data collection happens without user consent, secure data storage, or any protection against data reselling. Our personal data is collected, exposed, sold, and exploited, all so Big Tech can get even richer. This lack of oversight around collection and storage of personal data has led to numerous, high-profile data breaches. With countless companies getting hacked for hundreds-of-millions of user profiles (even for things like credit card numbers), nearly everyone on earth has been affected.

There are some privacy laws and regulations that attempt to block (or slow) this data collection, such as Europe’s GDPR and California’s CCPA. These laws generally give users more control over their personal data, and require companies to be more transparent about data collection practices. But ultimately, protecting yourself from unwanted data collection online means taking matters into your own hands.

Private alternatives to Big Tech search engines

If you’re looking to avoid the data collection and ad targeting of Big Tech search engines, the best option is the combo of a privacy-first search engine and Web browser. Private search engines block third-party ads, cookies, and trackers when you search the Web; private Web browsers do the same on any site you visit.

Brave offers both. The Brave browser blocks trackers, fingerprinting, and more on every site. Its default search engine—Brave Search—is the only global, private, independent search engine built on its own index. It doesn’t track you, what you search, or what you click. And with no data changing hands with a Big Tech search engine, Brave’s search ads are private by default.

Download Brave and try them both today, or visit from any other browser.

Related articles

How do private search engines impact advertisers?

More and more people are switching to private search engines like Brave Search, and away from Big Tech options like Google. But how do these private options affect advertisers? Can private search show useful ads, protect users, and support the continued operation of the search engine itself? In this article, a discussion of how private search engines impact ads and advertisers.

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