Pay no attention to the Web trackers behind the curtain, says ad industry

Evidon's Global Tracking Report says the biggest Web trackers are Google and Facebook

Who’s tracking your movements across the Web? The biggest offenders are Google and Facebook, says the Evidon Global Tracker Report, a semi-annual analysis of the ad tracking industry that will be made public tomorrow.

Using data collected by its Ghostery browser plug in, Evidon monitored tracking cookies for more than 1.6 million users. The most common tracker, found on more than 70 percent of all sites, is Google Analytics. The second most common tracker is Google Adsense. The rest of the top five is filled out by Facebook’s social plug-ins, Google+ widgets, and Facebook Connect.

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The dominance of Google Analytics is no surprise; that free tool is used by tens of millions of Web sites to analyze how many people visited the site, where they came from, how long they stayed, what they looked at, and where they went. It is not generally used to track people across multiple Web sites – which is what’s really driving the controversy around Do Not Track (though Evidon’s report vaguely hints that gAnalytics could be used in this fashion).

The real tracking problem comes from advertising networks that collect information across a wide span of sites, using cookies that are placed on your computer when you load a page containing an ad, and then use your Web surfing history to deliver other ads. Here Google dominates as well, landing in three of the top five slots.

evidon top 10 advertisers.png

The primary message of this report, in case it isn’t already clear: If you want to worry about somebody tracking you across the Web, worry about Google. And if you have any tracking anxiety left over, apply it to social networks like Facebook, G+, and Twitter.

Other interesting info nuggets contained in the report:

* Facebook, Twitter, and G+ are neck and neck in the race to festoon Web pages with social sharing widgets. On average, users encounter one of these widgets 15 times a day.

* Over 80 percent of Web sites contain five trackers or less (the average is 4.7). But the typical arts and entertainment site (like imdb.com or hulu) contains nearly two dozen, with news and information sites averaging more than 20.

* Every tracker on a site adds to the time it takes for pages to load. The average latency is roughly half a second per tracker, but the worst offenders add more than three seconds per.

The study, though, has some serious flaws. The first one is that it doesn’t reflect average Web users. If you use Ghostery, you’re a rare kind of privacy geek. And because the survey is self selecting – ie, limited to Ghostery users who agreed to participate in its anonymous data collection program – the results aren’t projectable to the general Web surfing population.

The second major flaw is that this study is hardly impartial. Evidon’s has got a dog in this hunt. It is the creator of oversees the Digital Advertising Alliances' Ad Choices program, which places little blue triangles on ads that you can click to get more information about who’s tracking you and what kind of information they’re collecting. Evidon is one of the key players behind the ad industry’s aggressive attempts to avoid Do Not Track legislation.

The report also takes several swipes at press coverage of Do Not Track, in particular the Wall Street Journal’s brilliant “What They Know” series. Colin O’Malley, chief strategy officer for Evidon, writes:

The tone of press coverage has often been alarming. Many in the industry would say that consumer perception of their capacity for personalized content and advertising far outpaces reality. Nonetheless, consumer concern is real, and it’s driving regulatory attention to the topic in both the US and the EU, especially over the last four years. And while many in the industry would like to pin the blame on the press, this report establishes that tracking is in fact widespread on the internet, typically by dozens of companies on a single site.

O’Malley is no doubt correct when he says that people have an unrealistic notion of what online tracking is, or how much advertisers can really know about you. As I’ve noted previously at TY4NS, these profiles can be laughably inaccurate. (In one, I am a transgender senior citizen interested in games and toys.)

On the other hand, the ad/tracking companies haven’t done themselves any favors by hacking around browser default DNT settings, creating zombie tracking cookies that re-spawn even after users have opted out, or misrepresenting the types of information they collect about users, to name just three examples. If consumers don’t trust the ad industry when it claims that tracking is harmless, can you really blame them?

Of course, Google and Facebook are huge players in the online advertising industry – and if Facebook ends up creating its own third-party ad network, it will be even more so. But they aren’t the only folks doing the tracking. The number and frequency of Web trackers is important, but so is the information the trackers are collecting, and what happens to it. Those are two things Evidon’s Global Tracking Report fails to address.

[Note: An earlier version of the blog credited Evidon with creating the Ad Choices program. In fact, that program was initiated by the Digital Advertising Alliance, a consortium of major online advertisers, with a strong shove from the FTC. TY4NS regrets the error.]

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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