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The web designer's guide to data tracking

The web designer's guide to data tracking

Stay informed of how far the data tracking tag chain reaches to limit how much of your data is collected and how it’s used. Andy Kahl of Ghostery gives you the lowdown.

According to several online advertising preference managers, I have a varied set of interests including bicycles and accessories, hair care, humour, record labels, superhero films, TV commercials and vehicles by Toyota. The accuracy of this is debatable, but what concerns me is how these companies came by this data. Privacy tools have been built to make this kind of data collection more transparent, and give users meaningful choice about limiting what’s collected and how it’s used.

These privacy tools also provide web devs with a way to audit sites. By scanning pages and matching against a library of over 2,800 distinct tracking technologies, tools such as Ghostery can reveal several types of tracking code that could be eluding website operators.

Outdated code

The data collection industry has enjoyed a decade or so of unprecedented innovation and exploration. Like eager conquistadors, site owners expanded into uncharted data territory with little concern for the metaphorical equivalent of natural resources, property rights and indigenous populations. The key to long-term profitability comes as the industry matures and begins to reflective on efficient and responsible ways to collect and use data.

A key to this process is to take a look at what found its way onto your site during the wildest days of site expansion. Trials with tracking vendors, conversion pixels from old ad campaigns and antiquated analytics accounts can linger among active code. These scripts can slow site performance and leak data to bygone partners.

Tracking code

Often sites can find themselves with a suite of tracking tags all serving the same function. It makes sense to diversify your tracking portfolio among analytics scripts, social tools, ads and conversion/ segmentation pixels, but it’s vital to know each tag on the page is providing value.

Multiple social tools make sense: they represent multiple social networks and a group of data collection pixels can work together to help reach your audience and properly monetise your data. But multiple analytics pixels, for example, should be providing unique information from service to service.

Conversion pixels should represent active campaigns, and align with multiple ones where possible. Duplicate tags not returning useful data to your organisation should be escorted out of your page code.

Crashing the data party

As sites partner with multiple technology providers, ad technology companies partner with one another to better qualify and reach specific user segments. Technically, these partnerships often mean page script redirection or piggybacked deployment (ad tech scripts delivering more tags to the page when they execute).

Those tags then fire and can return further scripts; publishers risk remaining unaware of technologies present on pages they ‘control’. In a scan of data collection technologies on over 500 websites, Evidon (www.evidon.com) found just 45.2 per cent of trackers were deployed directly by the site owner.

With the rapid emergence of new technologies and evolution of established services, it’s hard to stay informed of how far the tracking tag chain can reach. The longer it is, the bigger the risk of data escaping a site’s back door to a technology partner never engaged by the site itself.

Gaffes and goals

Website operators can audit scripts that hang up page loading when they don’t load correctly. Some tracking scripts wrap around actual page content and, without a well-formed response from their server, the content the user came to see won’t load. Not only is the data collection opportunity lost, the user is left with a poor web experience and potentially a bad perception of the site overall.

Web consumers may feel the benefits of using privacy tools, but there’s a lot more to gain by providing a tool for website operators. An informed owner can disclose tracking technology in privacy statements, increase performance and better monetise content, working to make a better and more transparent web for all.

Words: Andy Kahl

Andy Kahl is a senior product strategist at Ghostery

This article originally appeared in .net magazine issue 243

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