Tracking the Trackers: What $39 Billion looks like

First up, big thanks to Gary Kovacs for this presentation on TED: Tracking the Trackers

I recently watched a very interesting presentation by Gary Kovacs about the presence and value of tracking our usage on the web. As CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, Gary and his team have made a small extension for Chrome, Firefox and Safari called Collusion, which highlights all of the trackers following you across the web.

Below are some results from my daily browse of the internet. This is based on an average day, working with some SEO projects, some reading of news and blogs, and updating my own analytical reports.

collusion collusion
Chart A: After 2 minutes Chart B: After 4 hours Chart C: After 8 hours

As you can see, the results are staggering. This huge density of links and trackers reflects the data shared between many of the websites we visit (Facebook being just one example).

As a general understanding of this data, and based on my findings, on an average website there are c.3 trackers. Taking this, multiply that by every page you visit:

  • 3 for Google
  • 3 for the search results
  • 3 for the news you read
  • 3 for the return to the search results
  • 3 for the blog you read

Now, before this post becomes a war cry against any site tracking and recording of browsing data, let us not think that all tracked data is evil and driven by a desire to acquire you deepest secrets. Tracking codes can provide a great user experience and especially with the impact of social media, our online presence and profile is used more than ever before. Generally, these trackers can best be defined as:

  • Advertising Code
  • User Experience
  • HTML Content

Advertising codes will track your browsing trends and clicks to understand what it is you search for and buy and tactics such as retargeting are frequently used by internet marketers to complete a broken sales path. However, the troubling issue I find with Collusion is not that I am being tracked by the sites I visit, but the sheer number of external sites which follow my every move without my even visiting or knowing who they are. Common trackers like ScoreCardResearch and akamaihd.net create a profile for hungry marketers and advertisers alike. Until today, I never visited those sites.

In terms of usability for example, metrics such as bounce data and click heat maps are often recorded to improve website design, user experience and click optimisation. Many A/B testing platforms will also track your use of a website, with platforms such as Optimizely being utilised to find pitfalls and potential improvements onsite.

And as a side note, remember that many sites will refer external sources for items such as JavaScript, fonts and API data. On a small HTML test site I run, the template I used refers to a third part font at http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Allura|Cabin’. I never set that up but as the chosen font, this will be requested, opening a line of contact between your browser and a third-party tracker.

And the price of all this? Gary quotes a staggering $39,000,000,000 industry, where each of our profiles builds an advertising portfolio for re-targeting and search personalisation. And in some cases this can be beneficial.  This so-called ‘bubble’ effect on searchers can be useful with things like Google Personalised Search, but it is important to bear in mind that search marketing is a business, and this business wants your data.

So what can we do? There are a few solutions.

  1. Download Collusion and chose to block unknown trackers
  2. Make clearing your cache and cookies a daily ritual
  3. Use Google Encrypted Search or DuckDuckGo
  4. Understand your value in the age of internet marketing

If a tracked internet experience worries you then I am afraid unless you use the ideas above, this is not going to go away anytime soon. These online profiles are like Ivory, the more we use the internet and provide an advertising value then there will be a need and use.

You can watch the full presentation here (well worth 6 minutes of your time), and begin to understand how the internet and how we use it can build a profile much clearer than you think.

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