Archive for August, 2010

Who’s Tracking You Online?

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Many people don’t realize that when they use the internet, they leave a trail of bread crumbs behind them in the form of their search history. Figuring out how to sell you stuff online is big business and there are hundreds of companies gathering information about you so they can do just that.

The Thursday, August 19th edition of Fresh Air on NPR had Julia Angwin, a senior technology editor at the Wall Street Journal, talking about the companies that track you online. Angwin explains how consumer surveillance works, how users can disable the tracking software — and how advertisers are continually evolving to keep up with the data they receive.

The staff at the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) did a series of articles where they took a look at the 50 most popular websites and what kind of tracking software these websites installed on visitor’s computers. WSJ’s research identified more than 100 tracking companies, data brokers and advertising networks collecting data — which are then sold on a stock market-like exchange to online advertisers.

Important Points from the Show and the Series:

If you don’t have time to listen to the 40 minute show, here’s a rundown of the important points. For some of the points, I have included the minute of the show you can queue up more information.

There are 2 types of tracking software: Cookies and Beacons.

A cookie is small text file a website puts on your computer which gives you an ID number unique to that website. Cookies only know what page you’re on. They don’t monitor what you’re doing on that page. One website can install multiple cookies on your computer.

Beacons are bits of software code that track your movements across a website. Unlike cookies, beacons are not installed on your computer. Beacons are very rare and can do a variety of things including keystroke monitoring. Keystroke monitoring means they can capture what you type into a field. Cookies can’t do that. Websites that are doing keystroke monitoring know they’re doing it and don’t do it for sensitive information like passwords.

It is legal for websites to put Cookies and Beacons on your computer.

Who’s Tracking You and Why?

  • Websites owners don’t necessarily know that their website is installing cookies on their visitor’s computers. (Angwin discusses how this works at about the 7 minute mark.) For example installed the most at 234 but only 11 were installed by The other 223 were installed by 3rd party advertisers.
  • At minute 11:30 Angwin describes how this information is sold in a stock market like situation and how it’s used.
  • Although most information gathering is designed to determine buying preferences, there are concerns about the types of info being gathered. Angwin discusses some of these concerns at about minute 22:00.
  • Google is the biggest tracker with Microsoft coming in 2nd.
  • Wikipedia is the only of the top 50 sites that doesn’t allow any tracking on its site. (Yay Wikipedia!)
  • On average, the top 50 sites installed 64 pieces of tracking software.
  • Internet Explorer is the by far the most used browser. Microsoft had an internal debate about whether you had to opt out or opt in to it. (Opt out means you are tracked by default and you have to figure out how to tell it not to track you. Opt in means you have to tell them you want to be tracked.) The Advertising Department won that battle so if you use Internet Explorer, you have to opt out of tracking which is not easy to do. (I use Google Chrome. With Chrome you choose whether or not to allow tracking when you install the browser software.)
  • At 33:45 she discusses what you can do to block it. See Resources below.
  • While you can see what tracking devices are on your computer you can’t see what tracking devices are on your mobile phone.
  • Apple Safari by default blocks 3rd party tracking.

The Points I Think You ought to Know

It’s been my experience that when people first learn that they are being tracked online, they immediately go to worst case scenario and assume the only purpose is to gather personal information that can be used to steal their identity or make charges to their credit card. The vast majority of the time that is not the intent at all. Big companies such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo aren’t out to get sensitive data such as credit card or social security numbers. They are interested in tracking you online so they can make more money by targeting ads better. They assume that if they know your interests and they target ads to your interests, it will increase the chance that you will buy something.

Virtually any media or shopping site is going to put a cookie on your computer. Cookies aren’t all bad, they make it possible for a website to recognize you when you come back so you don’t have to login every time or re-enter some data. Your computer probably has thousands of them on it right now. If you do a search for “cookies.txt” in your computer’s search function, you can find the folder. To go through them and delete them one at a time would take dozens of hours. You can empty the folder with a few clicks but if you do that, you’re going to spend a lot of time re-logging into various websites.

You Probably Use Cookies Too!

Your website is probably installing them too. At least is should be! Why? If you use Google Analytics (and you should be), you’re installing a cookie to track what pages visitors click on, how long they stay on that page, what browser they used to find you and other statistics. When you look at your Google Analytics data, you don’t know who visited your site but you do get valuable information that in aggregate helps you fine tune your website and hopefully increase sales.

So before you decide to have a no tolerance policy toward cookies, keep in mind that they really are helpful and not necessarily a bad thing.

Links from the Show:

Listen to the show here:

Read the WSJ series here: is the software they recommend for blocking tracking.

Learn more about how Google Analytics uses cookies:

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FAQ: What’s the Difference Between a Home Page and a Landing Page?

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

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A home page is the page people land on when they go to your main URL such as A landing page is the page people land on when they click on the link in an online advertisement and the URL is something like While your home page is the same regardless of how people find it, you can have multiple landing pages crafted for specific purposes or target markets. When running an Adwords campaign, it is highly recommended that you point searchers to custom landing pages instead of your home page. Doing so will increase your sales and reduce your Adwords expenses.

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Watch out for This Sales Newsletter Scam

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

fraud_2Talk about a crappy way to start a Monday! I checked my messages this morning and had one from a collections agency looking to collect on a past due invoice for $94.50 assessed against my business. At first I figured the phone call was a scam to get me to call her back so she could give me a sales pitch because I KNOW I don’t owe anybody anything. The vast majority of my expenses I pay via credit card and the only things I pay by check are sub-contractor invoices.

So when the collections agent explained that I signed up for a sales newsletter and it was in collections because I hadn’t paid any of the 5 invoices this company sent. I vaguely remembered getting a call some months ago from a sales guy trying to get me to sign up for a sales newsletter. I remember him because he was kind of obnoxious and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I think at some point I sad “You can send the free one if you want but I’m signing up for it.”  Apparently he took that as authorization.

I’d be less inclined to think it’s a scam versus a miscommunication if I’d ever received a newsletter or any of the supposed 5 invoices they sent. Although the collections agent was polite, she was rather dismissive and kept claiming I probably just threw away the invoices or I didn’t understand that I had to cancel the newsletter.

Finally she said, “Well they always confirm acceptance by getting a birth date.” To which I replied, “Oh really. And what birth date did they give you?” She told me the date she had in her records to which I replied “That’s not even close to my birthday.” That changed her attitude and she closed out the account and assured me I wouldn’t be hearing from them again.  She wouldn’t send me a letter saying the matter was closed so in a few months, I’m going to run my credit report to make sure.

The lesson in this? DO NOT GIVE OUT YOUR BIRTH DATE! I don’t think you should even put it on your Facebook or social network profiles. Most people think they’re safe because they their birth date is “only” visible to their Facebook Friends. That’s not true. All you need is for one of your Friends to take the wrong Facebook quiz and the programmers of that quiz have access to the personal data of the quiz-takers Friends. The collections agent only gave me the month and day so leaving off the year of your birth won’t help either.

I’ve heard of similar scams where they use the last 4 digits of your social security number so don’t give that out either. Legitimate businesses don’t need that kind of “authorization.”

I think another part of the scam was to make the claim for just under $100. Many companies, especially ones with a separate accounting department, will just pay the invoice to make it go away.

I wish I had the name of the scamming company. I would bury them online in negative press. The collections agent wouldn’t give it to me and since they call their product “sales newsletter” I’ve got virtually no chance of finding them. More than likely another deliberate decision in the scamming process.

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