They Are Watching: How Web Tracking Works

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How Web Tracking Works

For most people, the notion that they are in some way being tracked while they use the internet is no longer surprising. The subtlety of how it’s done keeps us from experiencing that creepy feeling of being watched, the feeling we get when being followed around by a salesperson in a store—which, by the way, is the type of thing that can kill a shopper’s enthusiasm faster than anything else. Yet, as we click about our day seeing ad after ad that suspiciously corresponds to our interests and desires, we remain glib, or, with whatever awareness of marketing surveillance around us that’s intact, make jokes about “big brother” that are more indicative of our weary numbness toward it all than any real alarm. In other words, we know we’re being tracked, and seem to prefer to remain in the dark about how exactly it’s done because knowing more might compel us to change how we use the web, perhaps even, how we feel about it.

While willful ignorance of tracking technology might be tenable for the average web user, those of us working in the digital marketing space are going to need to familiarize ourselves much more with how it all works, even if we have to figuratively hold our noses while doing so. If we’re not asking questions about the technologies, what’s possible and what’s ethical, our clients certainly will be. And without ready answers, we could stand to lose the confidence upon which we build our most valuable relationships.

Over my next two posts, I want to bring you up to speed on how tracking works, differentiate between limited and unlimited tracking, and explore how limited tracking can actually benefit users and marketers alike. This first one will start with the how. First, a bit of context…

A recent Wall Street Journal investigation showed that the top 50 websites in the United States install an average of 64 individual trackers to visitor computers with little to no disclosure. Some websites among the top 50 even exceeded 100 trackers. While the word installation may connote visible, mechanical processes that slow things down or conjure images of slow progress bars in your mind, the actual process of placing trackers on to visitor computers is much faster and more invisible. The fact that it goes unnoticed by the majority of web users is what makes it so effective. But the more insight that people have into what exactly is happening when they access sites like, for example, the more likely they are to reconsider using them at all. This is certainly reinforced by the poll the Wall Street Journal has running in the sidebar of their privacy investigation report. As of this writing, 58% of readers who answered it reported that they are “very alarmed” about advertisers and other companies tracking their web use. I would have been interested in seeing a similar poll inquiring as to their level of concern prior to reading the article. My suspicion is that the details of the article, in particular, how tracking works and the different types of tracking that web users are likely to already have been subject to, have a direct impact upon the increasing concern of readers.

So in that spirit, let’s get up to speed with how this all works. There’s quite a bit of detail to cover, so get comfortable. I promise that you won’t regret taking the time to read through it all…

How Tracking Works

There are two basic types of trackers, “first-party” trackers, which transfer benign text files to users’ computers in order to enable websites to remember user information, such as items they’ve placed in their shopping cart or field data for forms that have already been filled out, and “third-party” trackers, which also transfer files to users’ computers in order to gather data about much more than just their session on the tracker’s site of origin. While first-party trackers are useful to users, and limited in scope to very particular data sets relevant to the site of origin, third-party trackers, unlimited in reach, are controversial and push the boundaries of privacy and ethics online.

Why You See Advertisements that Match Your Interests

Let’s go back to, one of the sites mentioned in the Wall Street Journal tracking exposé. Out of the 234 trackers it installs onto users’ machines, only 11 of them are first-party trackers. That leaves 223 third-party trackers, all with unique agendas. When a third-party tracker is downloaded by a computer, it assigns that machine with a unique identification number (something like “4c812db2922…”) stored inside a cookie associated with the web browser being used. So, if you’ve visited recently, it’s likely that those trackers are running on your machine right now, gathering data about you by observing your web browsing session—not just the pages you view on, but all sites you visit with that browser. If the tracker is using a technology called a “beacon,” it can even record your keystrokes.

Think about that for a moment. If a tracker can record every site you visit and the things you type—search queries, instant messages or emails using web-based systems, comments, etc.—it can quickly assemble a very thorough and accurate profile for you, one that is quite valuable to advertisers.

In fact, third-party trackers using beacon technology can match the data they collect about you in real time with other databases containing geolocation, financial, and medical information in order to expand your profile to predict your age, gender, zip code, income, marital status, parenthood, home ownership, as well as unique interests. If you visit other websites that work with the same ad networks that control the trackers you picked up on, the original tracking file will take note of the connections. As this continues, your profile will become more and more specific to your interests as well as enriched by any information you willingly share with the participating websites. So, if you’re seeing more and more advertisements that seem oddly tailored to you, it’s probably not a coincidence.

Why Tracking Exists

One of the companies that creates third-party trackers is Lotame Solutions, an ad network that uses beacons to capture billions of data points to assemble consumer profiles. While these profiles don’t contain specific names (i.e. there is no particular profile for Chris Butler), they can get extraordinarily close to identifying very particular things about individuals to the point of being unique. Lotame also groups profiles by more general categories, like foodies or film buffs, or in customized segments, all, of course, for sale.

That’s the point of all this, the “why.” The richer the consumer data, the more predictive it can be. The more predictive the profile, the more valuable it is to advertisers and marketers. And I’m not talking about the advertisers and marketers that are likely reading this article—those that represent mid-size B2B and B2C businesses. They rarely feature ad-network advertising on their sites and have little reason for third-party tracking. I’m talking about the worldwide mega-brands that are in a dominant enough position to see the world as data points rather than people—the ones that set the precedent for much of what we do as designers and marketers. This is a distinction I’ll come back to in the second part of this series, so stay tuned…