Scott Meyer, founder and CEO of Ghostery, believes there’s a moment when you know it’s time to start a company. The idea usually comes in the form of a problem that keeps you awake at night, but sometimes it comes to you in the car and takes you 45 minutes in the wrong direction on a family vacation.
The problem that took Meyer 45 minutes out of his way: Increasing privacy on the Internet while also providing marketers with enough data to justify online advertising. The solution became an add-on for you browser that identifies data-trackers and lets you block them.
Meyer was CEO and president of About.com, a division of the New York Times Company, when his road trip detoured. Not long after, he left that company and joined the Warburg Pincus Entrepreneur-in-Residence program and later founded The Better Advertising Project in 2009 with the help of Ed Kozek and Colin O’Malley. They purchased a browser extension called Ghostery that same year, and renamed the company after it in 2014.
People concerned with advertisers and websites who track them can add the Ghostery extension, allowing them to ghost-surf the web. Along with added privacy, the technology actually speeds up load time on sites by blocking tracking identification and pop-up ads.
“It’s entirely free to use and totally anonymous,” Meyer explains. “With a couple clicks, you can make yourself entirely invisible to online tracking.”
The Ghostery community has grown to more than 40 million and has garnered support from transparency and privacy advocate Edward Snowden. However, roughly half of those people have opted into the GhostRank extension, which is how Ghostery makes its money. When you opt in, Ghostery anonymizes your Internet footprint and sells it to marketers. Of course, there has been some hesitation and mild pushback. Ghostery sells data to marketers — even if it is anonymous.
Ghostery says it’s transparent about its business model. The company presents those who opt in with clear disclosures about how the company uses their data. Who do they sell it to? Companies who operate websites and ad companies. How sites pull in their ads is pretty complex. A website uses an ad network to place content on its pages. Those ad networks often use third parties to help deliver it. Sometimes stuff gets through that shouldn’t. When the website gets info from Ghostery, it’s able to see who is delivering content on its site. Sometimes it’s as expected, and sometimes it’s not. Websites can use that info to fix the problem and create a better experience for the people who visit its site.
“Our main challenge is being able to explain our business model effectively,” Meyer says. “That consumers have a clear understanding of the value we provide and what we do with the data. We bend over backwards so there’s no ambiguity about our data.”
Ghostery’s biggest competitor is AdBlock Plus. The two don’t always agree on business models, but the market is growing. As of June 2015, there were 198 million monthly active users for browser extensions that block ads. Most of those users are on PCs. Even though a large portion of online browsing is happening on our phones, ad blocking on mobile is still figuring itself out. Ghostery’s database made its way into at least one iOS 9 content blocking app. The developer pulled it from the App Store. Profiting from ad blocking is still morally grey and controversial. Ghostery supported the decision, saying that it understood there are still issues with ad blocking. The company also has a mobile browser for both iOS and Android.
To date, Ghostery has raised $19 million in three rounds, the last round was in 2010. Meyer believes it’s an exciting time for the space of information technology and online marketing.
“Consumers are holding businesses accountable for delivering the same type of fantastic experience that they get when they walk into a retail store,” Meyer says. “Providing that type of experience is going to be a point of serious competition moving forward.”