Whether you believe it or not, you’re an important person on the Internet.. Yups. Advertising networks are all competing over how best to track your web activity. These activity can include how you interact with a particular website, what you are most likely going to click on, how long each of your visit usually lasts, how you actually landed on that website in the first place, and so on and so on. If you are a content publisher, such as a blogger like myself, these data can be very important. You get to learn what excites your readers the most, how they found your website, the search terms they’ve used in their search engine prior to clicking your website and so forth. This in return allows the publisher to adjust and tweak their websites in order to appeal more to its audience members. Well, some of you still might not like the idea of being “tracked”, even if the data is being used for website “improvement” purposes. So, how would you feel if those data gathered about you were being sold to other companies instead or used behind your back to do other things? Not good right? Wouldn’t you want to learn how to prevent these advertising companies from tracking you in the first place?
Let me get one thing straight before continuing on: a lot of people can have a different outlook where their online privacy is concerned. Take myself for example. Personally, I really don’t care that much that my browsing activity is tracked. Do I really care if advertising companies find out that I like to visit Facebook while browsing for products on Amazon at the same time? Do I care if companies find out I prefer to one type of product over another? Do I care that an advertising company collects my data and in return use that data to better target their advertisements for me? Hardly. If they want to advertise certain products for me based on my search/purchase history, fine. In this past article, I actually go over why I really don’t mind advertisements at all. However, I do have a problem once these advertising networks start collecting “personal” information about me behind my back or once they can actually start identifying me with their collected data. This is the big issue I have with so called online tracking companies.
In order to stop telling third party agencies from tracking our online behavior and activities, we need to actually tell them! That’s right folks. By default, we can be tracked by these so called tracking elements without knowing any better. Unless we tell them otherwise, nothing happens. Well, that’s about to change. From my limited knowledge, many advertising agencies rely on tracking cookies to monitor your behavior. These cookie files are nothing more than simple files that get stored on your computer whenever you visit a website. Are all cookies bad? The answer is simply no. However, this subject can be an entire new post by itself so I won’t get into that debate here. What you need to know is that by default, websites get permission to store these cookies on your computer (unless you blocked all cookies from entering your system in the first place). Unless you erase your cookie store from within your browser, these cookie files usually have a long life span and will remain on your computer. There are different types of cookies and some do expire after a short period of time but for advertising cookies, I’m sure they have a very long life.
Want to delete these cookies? Sure! Go right on ahead! However, know that upon re-visiting the site with the offending cookie, it will get blasted right down to your computer again. Is all hope lost? Of course not! It turns out that there are bad cookies and good cookies. The bad cookies are the one’s I’ve just talked about. The good cookies are called the opt-out cookies. These specific cookies, once created and stored on your computer, tells a specific advertising agency that you do not want to be tracked by them and therefore to leave them the heck alone. Think of opting out as unsubscribing to a service. Remember what I said earlier in that in order for agencies to not track you, you have to specifically tell them? Well, these opt-out cookies is doing exactly that. So how do we start “opting” out?I’ve gone over another excellent browser add-on called TACO (Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out) in a separate post here. The add-on is neat in that once installed, it will help you create the opt-out cookies needed for many of the most popular advertising networks. Even if you clear your cookie store, these opt-out cookies will remain. Another popular add-on is called NoScript and this tool can do a whole lot more than what I will be going over here. However, NoScript is a bit too powerful in blocking things and is a generally more advance type of add-on for power users.
Getting started with Ghostery is very easy. Download the add-on for your current browser, install, configure some settings and you’re all set! Upon initial startup, you’ll be presented with Ghostery’s wizard. I suggest you go over each page. However, you can also tweak Ghostery’s settings and behavior after this wizard completes as well.
- After the welcome page, Ghostery allows you to opt-in to GhostRank. This service allows you to send anonymous usage of the add-on to Ghostery’s team and developers. There are specific information they collect from you and more information can be gleaned by reading their FAQs page. In essence, by turning on GhostRank, you get to help out Ghostery by providing useful statistics and information in hopes that they themselves better learn how advertising networks work. Of course, you are not required to enable GhostRank to use Ghostery.
- Upon detecting third party elements on a webpage (which will happen pretty much on every website you visit), Ghostery will alert you. By default, this alert will pop-out in the top right corner of your browser and will remain visible for 15 seconds. We can configure the settings later but for now, choose to enable Alerts.
- As with many services that relies on blocking things, there must be a way to update that master list. Ghostery is no exemption. You can choose to enable Auto-Update to have Ghostery automatically download and update that master list without your intervention. I suggest you turn this on.
- The last option you configure is pretty confusing in my opinion. I left the first option (enable Blocking) off because I personally don’t know how that works. Cookie Protection allows Ghostery to automatically help you block cookies from advertising network domains on their list.
Once the wizard completes, we can begin using Ghostery. However, there is one more thing we should configure. Click on the Ghostery icon in your browser’s add-on bar and select Options from its menu. Here you can configure where to place the Alert Bubble for Ghostery and how long it should be visible for. Remember, this bubble appears anytime you visit a website and third party elements are found. This will happen for many of the websites you visit. So that means you’ll be seeing this bubble a lot (assuming you didn’t disable it altogether). The Alert Bubble will only show you the items it finds on a website. Clicking on it won’t do anything. To block a third party element, you will still have to manually click on the Ghostery icon, which I’ll go over in a minute. As far as all the other options go, sticking to the defaults seems pretty safe. You are also able to have Ghostery delete Flash and Silverlight cookies on exit.
There’s not much to utilizing Ghostery. Once installed and configured, you’ll see a bubble alert each and every time you visit a website listing the third party elements it caught. These can range from advertising networks to other things. To block an element, simply click on the Ghostery icon, mouse over to the element and choose to block it. That’s it! From then on, that company, advertising agency or whatever it is will be blocked from loading on your computer/browser. When you visit another site that has that same element installed, it will also be prevented from loading! Because there are so many networks out there, it can be pain to figure out what each one does. Ghostery allows you to easily glean more information on a particular network as well. Instead of blocking the element, select the “What is xyz?” link where xyz is the element in question. Ghostery will provide some basic information about that element.
The problem with going all out and blocking each and every element you see is that some of them are necessary for the page to function correctly. As an example, head over to ESPN.com. In Ghostery, block the ForeSee element and refresh the page. You’ll then notice that the ESPN scoreboard has now completely disappeared! It is cases like these in where you have to be careful. You could block a third party element on one website and because that same element will also be blocked on future websites, it could unintentionally break something. Fortunately though, you can whitelist a domain in Ghostery. Simply visit the site, click the Ghostery icon and select the appropriate option to have that site whitelisted. From then on, all elements on that site will be able to run while the offending element will still be blocked in all other domains you visit. This is a very handy feature.
One missing feature that would make Ghostery more accessible is an export/import function. I use my laptop the most and so I’ve blocked many third party elements within Ghostery. When I install the add-on on my desktop computer, I have to start from scratch again. It would be awesome if we could export to a file containing a list of all the third party elements we’ve blocked and import it to a new installation of Ghostery on another machine. This would save a lot of time in my opinion.
Admission of Guilt and Warning
As of right now, I am not proud of myself. I have around 8 different third party elements on AnotherWindowsBlog. It’s party my fault because I have deployed 3 different site tracking utilities where I only needed one. Some elements are completely out of my hands. When I install some useful plugin in WordPress, some necessary elements are loaded by default. Usually, a company will tell you first hand if this is the case. In many scenarios, you’ll definitely come across third party elements that you’ll see over and over again. Such includes anything with the words Google in front of it, Twitter, Facebook, DoubleClick, Comscore Beacon and a host of others.
In the end, I want to conclude that while Ghostery gives us an easy way to block third party elements from tracking our activity, it can also have unintended side effects. For the most part, blocking advertising agencies won’t really have an impact on your browsing experience as many things are performed “behind the scenes”. There are some elements that I chose not to block such as anything that starts with the words “Google” in front of it. Also, please remember that not all cookies that track your behavior is necessarily evil. For many bloggers, I need to get a sense of where and how visitors are landing on my site. To do so, I have to deploy some type of tracking mechanism such as Google Analytics which will no doubt be listed in Ghostery. The problem with third party tracking agencies is you don’t really know how they will behave. Unfortunately, many users will never know any of this. There are dozens and dozens of advertising and other network agencies that are interested in what you do. Not feeling particularly loved? Just hop on the net and know that at least someone is interested in what you do!