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blog: Don Marti

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Remove all the tracking widgets? Maybe not.

16 January 2018

Good one from Mark Pilipczuk: Publisher Advice From a Buyer.

Remove all the tracking widgets from your site. That Facebook “Like” button only serves to exfiltrate your valuable data to an entity that doesn’t have your best interests at heart. If you’ve got a valuable audience, why would you want to help the ad tech industry which promises “I can find the same and bigger audience over here for $2 CPM, so don’t buy from the publisher?” Sticking your own head in the noose is never a good idea.

That advice makes sense for the Facebook "like button." That button is just a data shoplifter. The others, though? All those extra trackers come in as side effects of ad deals, and they're likely to be contractually required to make ads on the site saleable.

Yes, those trackers feed bots and data leakage, and yes, they're even terrible at fighting adfraud. Augustine Fou points out that Fraud filters don't work. "In some cases it's worse when filter is on."

So in an ideal world you would be able to pull all the third-party trackers, but as far as day-to-day operations go, user tracking is a Chesterton's Fence problem. What happens if a legit site unilaterally takes down the third-party trackers? All the targeted ad impressions that would have given that site a (small) payment end up going to bots.

So what can a site do? Understand that the real fix has to happen on the browser end, and nudge the users to either make their browsers less data-leaky, or switch to browsers that are leakage-resistant out of the box.

Start A/B testing some notifications to remind users to turn on tracking protection.

  • Can you get users who are already choosing "Do Not Track" to turn on real protection if you inform them that sites ignore their DNT choice?

  • If a user is running an ad blocker with a paid whitelisting scheme, can you inform them about it to get them to switch to a better tool, or at least add a second layer of protection that limits the damage that paid whitelisting can do?

  • When users visit privacy pages or opt-out of a marketing program, are they also willing to check their browser privacy settings?

Every site's audience is different. It's hard to know in advance how users will respond to different calls to action to turn up their privacy and create a win-win for legit sites and legit brands. We do know that users are concerned and confused about web advertising, and the good news is that the JavaScript needed to collect data and administer nudges is as easy to add as yet another tracker.

More on what sites can do, that might be more effective than just removing trackers: What The Verge can do to help save web advertising